Kiwhare Mihaka

Corporatisation of state-owned enterprises

Kiwhare is known as the PSA's Kaumātua and for the leadership he has provided to the PSA’s rūnanga – Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina.

Kiwhare Mihaka left school at 15 to work for what was then called State Hydro, later the New Zealand Electricity Department (NZED), as a linesman. After work near Rotorua and at the geothermal plant at Wairakei, he and a group of friends left for the South Island and ended up at the Roxburgh hydro dam site. Kiwhare made his career in the NZED (which was absorbed into the Ministry of Energy in 1968), working on large electricity line construction projects in the South Island. He became a member of the PSA when he became a foreman.

He joined the PSA in 1969 when he became a foreman at State Hydro.  In 1981 State Hydro moved from a government department to a state enterprise.  Kiwhare became a PSA delegate during this time and helped PSA members and their families deal with the impact of redundancies. 

Kiwhare later worked at the Inland Revenue Department.  He joined the union on his first day and was on strike on the second.  While on the picket line Kiwhare was asked by the PSA to speak at a Department of Social Welfare meeting about being Māori in the PSA.

He has been an influential voice for Māori members.  During the 1990s, when the Employment Contracts Act was in force, Kiwhare played an important role in recruiting and retaining Māori members.  He considered it important for the union to reach into Māori communities by visiting marae to meet people on their terms.

He was instrumental in the development and presentation of the PSA’s Māori name - Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi.  Kiwhare’s lasting legacy is his success in building a profile for Māori in the union and in building relationships between Māori and non-Māori.

Here he talks about the effects  of corporatisation:

"Corporatisation impacted very hard on our workforce, especially on Maori. The small towns were wiped out. Aviemore had a village, Waitaki had a village, Otematata for Benmore likewise. There were about 25 families in each. All those villages, people just moved out. (At the same time they were looking at automating the power stations, which reduced jobs as well).

Some people were diverted by redundancy –- it looked good, but it didn’t last long. Then there was no job. Others thought working for the private sector would be more exciting, more shiny, there’d be more opportunities than with the Ggovernment, but they found out too. Often the jobs were gone within a couple of years.

So many Maori were lost from the workforce. But the words corporatisation and redundancy woke up Maori within the PSA. They said, “We need a voice in here, we need to know what’s happening, we need to have some say.”.

I was already concerned in ‘84 when the Ggovernment started to talk about the state- owned enterprises. I had a bit of a feeling from the Clyde Dam experience [built by the private sector] that they were heading down the corporatisation track...

By 1985, all the big projects in the sSouth were winding down. Our people in the electricity section of the Ministry of Energy were known as line construction or “alignment” –- truck drivers, working with shovels, digging holes, working with machinery including helicopters, pumping concrete. They were looking at laying off 342 staff. No work, after they’d just completed three transition lines! I had the job of thinking about this. Marsden Point was being built and I knew that the contractors were looking for men. I believed the people we had could do the job up there so I suggested this to my district engineer. He said OK. I rang them up and they sent two down to look at the people we had available. I took them round to four different camps. They took 238 from alignment.

But before they went up there, they had to do some training in protocols – all about the differences between working for a government department and working for the private sector. The main message was: - whatever you’re employed as, that’s your job. So I took them through the training and they had to sit a Department of Labour riggers course.
Before I sent them off, I got a New Zealand Workers Union (NZWU) rep in Dunedin, Calvin Fisher, to give them an overview of what to expect at Marsden Point. He couldn’t stress enough the business of just doing your job. You do exactly what you’re employed to do and no more, you don’t just pick up a shovel to help someone else. Anyway, I felt quite good about getting them rehired. The NZWU had a great big wall chart with all the awards on it, they could easily see what they would be paid. These men were all relocated along with their families.

And But then all my fears about corporatisation came to pass. They split line construction into Powermark and Powerbuild. Those assets were created by all the work we did. Electricity, gas, coal and geo-thermal power were all split up into SOEs. "

The State and the Union, an Oral History of the PSA from 1984 to 2012, by Mary Ellen O'Connor

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