Q&A with members of “New Zealand, please hear our voice”

The 30 questions below were submitted by administrators of the Facebook group, “New Zealand, please hear our voice”. Formed in 2018 by two anonymous nurses using the pseudonym “Nurse Florence”, it has grown to 39,000 members. It is the largest New Zealand-based Facebook group for nurses and our supporters. 

1. What was the final straw which caused you to resign from NZNO so suddenly and in the middle of a pandemic?

The considerations which led me to resign are outlined in the public statement I made on 24 April 2020. The last straw was when I learnt, two weeks earlier on 8 April 2020, that a lawyer would be hired to advise on further actions which could be taken against me as a result of the Special General Meeting held in December. 

My statement explains that I spent two weeks thinking about what to do, and about the thousands of NZNO members and supporters who stood up for me against the previous Board in 2019. As we were all struggling on the front lines as essential workers and at home in our bubbles, I said, I couldn’t ask for you to do that again. I couldn’t put my family through those public legal battles again, either. So I submitted my letter of resignation.

2. How has CEO Memo Musa been involved in this situation?

A statement posted on the official NZNO Facebook page at 7:09 PM on 24 April 2020 said: “Members will now have heard that NZNO President Grant Brookes has resigned, effective from today. This is strictly a matter between Grant Brookes and the Board. No staff were involved in the decision or events leading up to it and we are surprised and saddened by this news.”

I can vouch for the truth of that statement.

3. How has Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku been involved in this situation?

Kerri Nuku, in her role as NZNO Co-leader, chaired all of the Board meetings in 2019 which made decisions about removing me from office. She represented the Board against me publicly and in the media, and continues to do so.

In her role as Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku is also leader of Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO, the NZNO group for members identifying as Tangata Whenua. On 29 April 2020, Te Rūnanga released a public statement, containing many inaccuracies, which was disparaging of myself and the three other Board members who resigned after me. I do not intend to direct people to that shameful statement. 

4. There has been significant discussion regarding racism and discrimination from NZNO management and the BOD. How did this develop and how has this been allowed to fester in such a way?

Racism is a feature of societies in New Zealand and around the world. It is usually most obvious in the attitudes and behaviours of individuals but it also exists in the structure of institutions, including NZNO. Racism towards Māori developed through the ongoing processes of colonisation. One of the most distressing things about the Special General Meetings in 2019, and the decision last month to reopen those matters, is the way that it has seriously undermined efforts to tackle this racism. 

5. The change in the constitution allowing the Kaiwhakahaere to remain in office permanently – what is the rationale for this, what is your position, and how did this influence your decision to leave NZNO?

The change in the NZNO Constitution which allows the Kaiwhakahaere to remain in office permanently was made through a vote of member representatives at the NZNO AGM in 2017. The “constitutional remit” (or proposal for change) was submitted by Te Poari, the Committee of Te Rūnanga. The rationale given by Te Poari may be read in full at this link.

This change was not a factor in my decision to resign. 

Reporting the AGM debate about this remit in their October 2017 issue, Kai Tiaki noted: “Some delegates questioned how the change would affect succession planning and whether the constitutional change would prevent new leaders from emerging”. I supported the remit in 2017, but my position now is that these questions were valid. 

6. What specific issues do you feel you were unable to gain momentum on within NZNO which contributed to your resignation?

The public statement which I made when I resigned on 24 April 2020 talked about the issues which were important to me, and which of them failed to gain momentum. 

My key priorities, I said, were heeding the voice of the membership, tackling health inequities through an unrelenting focus on their social determinants, and strengthening NZNO’s bicultural partnership. I do feel that by working with members, together we were able to make NZNO a more membership-driven organisation. And NZNO is more focused than ever on tackling health inequities and their social determinants. 

But as I also wrote, “Having put my heart and soul into strengthening NZNO’s bicultural partnership for four and a half years, I am devastated that I can now see no way of achieving the type of genuine partnership that our Constitution envisages and our membership deserve.”

This issue did contribute to my decision to resign. 

7. Who are the “shadowy forces” you refer to in your resignation letter, and how have they contributed to your resignation?

“Shadowy forces”, by definition, are individuals and groups who operate out of sight, behind a front. They are the ones, I said, who were behind the Board’s bid to remove me from office last year and to stem the tide of member-led change. They contributed to my resignation because they were continuing to pursue these goals, and I did not feel able to ask members and supporters struggling on the front lines as essential workers and at home in their bubbles to again put in huge efforts to support me. 

As more senior figures resign, the front they can hide behind is getting smaller. And if people continue to push to make NZNO genuinely membership-driven and bicultural through a new Constitution, as I suggest in my latest blog, then the “shadowy forces” will become known through their resistance to this change. 

8. You have been transparent and answered questions on social media, by email and by phone for NZNO members and other nurses who required clarification and context for the recent events surrounding NZNO. Why do you believe the remaining board members and NZNO management have not also been forthcoming to the satisfaction of the membership?

Connecting with members was my favourite part of my role as NZNO President. Knowledge is power, and if I could help to empower members by answering questions on social media, then I considered I was doing the job I was elected to do. 

The previous Board viewed things very differently. As they stated in the document they provided to members on 22 August 2019, ahead of the first Special General Meeting, they believed that continuing to operate the “Grant Brookes, NZNO President” Facebook page constituted misconduct. It was one of the grounds they gave for why I should be removed from office at that SGM. 

I can’t answer for the actions, or inactions of the remaining board members and NZNO management, but I do note that a majority of the people in these positions were also involved in last year’s SGM. 

9. It appears from public social media posts that Te Rūnanga is encouraging their members to see this situation as a racial divide and to engage tauiwi NZNO members in an aggressive way. What are your thoughts?

I think it’s important to distinguish Te Rūnanga o Aotearoa NZNO, made up of almost 4,000 Māori members of NZNO, from the behaviour of a few prominent individuals who are tragically undermining our bicultural partnership. 

10. A large group of both board members and NZNO staff have left the organisation over the last two years, citing bullying as their reason. Who are the people responsible for this bullying, and how do they remain in these positions despite their behaviour?

I can’t comment on the circumstances surrounding the departure of other Board members or NZNO staff, sorry. 

11. The NZNO has been paying the president and Kaiwhakahaere for their work, which is unusual in a union structure. What was the rationale for this, and how is it influencing the current issues with dysfunction?

The creation of paid roles for the President and Kaiwhakahaere one of the changes which came with the NZNO Constitution, adopted in 2012. However, the initial proposal to create paid positions goes back as far as 1996, when the NZNO Annual Conference passed a remit calling for a review of the support needs of the President and requested a paper outlining advantages and disadvantages of having a full-time paid President. 

The idea resurfaced at conferences and in reports every couple of years thereafter. This is all well before my time, so I don’t know the rationale, sorry. 

Personally, I was sceptical about the creation of paid roles as the Constitution was being developed in 2010-12, as it brings with it a risk that elected leaders start to see their goal as remaining in office rather than serving their members. But I am now satisfied that limiting the length of time leaders are able to stay in their position can help to mitigate against this risk. 

By the way, the idea of a paid President is not unusual in union structures. Most similar unions in New Zealand have it – and also set term limits for their elected leadership. I don’t think paying the NZNO President and Kaiwhakahaere for their work is a major factor in the current issues with dysfunction. 

12. How can NZNO members call for a review of the Constitution?

As reported in the February issue of Kai Tiaki, the Board agreed in December to my proposal for a review of the Constitution. The terms of reference for this review are supposed to be provided to members when the 2020 AGM documents come out, in July. If the Board reneges on its decision, then getting a proper review will probably the require replacement of the Board. 

13. How can NZNO members make a vote of no confidence in the BOD and have them removed?

Watch this space. 

14. How can NZNO members force a forensic review of processes and financial accountability of the board and NZNO as a whole?

I am not clear what this question is asking, sorry. NZNO’s financial statements are audited annually. Since 2016, this has been conducted by Deloitte New Zealand. The independent auditor’s report is contained in the NZNO Annual Report, which is posted on the NZNO website. 

15. The three BOD members who resigned several days ago have still not received formal recognition of their resignations from NZNO, therefore members do not yet know if these have been accepted. How indicative of normal NZNO processes is this?

Nothing about NZNO governance is normal at the moment. 

16. There have been several expensive overseas trips made by the Kaiwhakahaere recently, which NZNO members paid for. What did these trips achieve for each individual fee-paying member of NZNO?

With rare exceptions, NZNO achievements generally accrue through ongoing activity over time. So it can be hard to point to a single action or event which led to them. But I do believe for example that pay parity for nurses working in Māori Health Providers, who typically earn less than their DHB counterparts, has been brought closer through the Kaiwhakahaere’s advocacy at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. 

I should also disclose my own interest in this matter. On some of the overseas trips, I went with the Kaiwhakahaere. 

I would like to highlight one achievement connected with our international engagement through Global Nurses United (where two of the three trips so far were heavily subsidised by the host nursing union, by the way). Partly because of the engagement with GNU members like the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives’ Association and National Nurses United in America, all fee-paying members will this year be able to vote on reviewing NZNO’s safe staffing strategies, including CCDM, and get a chance to support nurse:patient ratios. 

17. The Kaiwhakahaere has engaged in public posts on Facebook with fellow members of Te Rūnanga, suggesting that tauiwi need to be “overthrown”, “taken out”, are “unable to lead”, “ineffective for Māori health”, “lacking in mana”, etc, all of which is insulting and unprofessional to both tauiwi and Māori. Bearing in mind that you were effectively fired for a single text message, why has the Kaiwhakahaere not even been formally censured by NZNO for such behaviour? 

What? I have not seen these comments. I would need more information in order to respond. 

18. The three BOD members who resigned state they were asked to sign confidentiality agreements. Why was this?

A new letter of appointment, to be signed by all NZNO Board members and containing a confidentiality clause, was introduced in October 2017. A motion was passed, “That the Board draft a letter of appointment for all Board members to sign as soon as practicable.  This may need input from lawyers.”

The rationale, as recorded in the Board meeting minutes, is that this was “best practice on the basis of information from the IoD [Institute of Directors]”. I am sorry to say that I didn’t know any better at that time, and went along with it. 

19. What was their reasoning for leaving so soon after you?

I cannot speak for the three BOD members who resigned after me. 

20. How will the board now get new members and a new President and Vice-President?

The normal process for electing Board members, including the President and Vice-President, is contained in Schedule Three of the NZNO Constitution. Other processes are under discussion, but there is no information available on those at the moment. 

21. How has all of this impacted on the wider issues of MECA negotiations and COVID-19 support?

One NZNO staff member told me last week that the turmoil in the Board is “impacting on everything we do”. Despite this, NZNO delegates and staff are continuing to support members on the front line in the COVID-19 pandemic and in preparations for successful DHB MECA bargaining. 

22. What improvements had been made by NZNO to employment policies following membership dissatisfaction with the undertaking of legal action against you?

No changes have been made. 

23. Members have been leaving NZNO to sign with other unions. What is needed for nurses who have opted to remain, despite their dissatisfaction, to regain control of NZNO?

I’ve talked in broad terms in my latest blog about what’s needed for us, as members, to take back NZNO. Our fight to make NZNO genuinely membership-driven and bicultural, through a new Constitution, will also be a battle to dislodge entrenched interests. I am aware of groups developing more concrete plans for action. Please see the answer above, for question 13. 

24. A bullying culture seems to have developed and blossomed unchecked in the NZNO ranks. How can this be stopped?

The culture of an organisation is set from the top. In my opinion, the best way to rectify NZNO’s culture is to change the Board. 

25. The dysfunction within NZNO has been played out in the media. How can nurses salvage their reputations after this?

I know how hard it is to maintain ethical conduct in an unethical environment. But ultimately, this is what we have to do. 

26. How can nurses organise themselves to maintain a strong cohesive stance against future unacceptable DHB wage and conditions packages – given the current state of the union?

I have stated publicly my belief that NZNO is a much more membership-driven organisation today. One of the ways this is true is in the approach to the 2020 DHB MECA bargaining. The current state of the union will sadly affect our cohesion, but there is a lot we can do to maintain our collective strength. I don’t follow gurus, because we have to make our future ourselves. But there are some good tips about how we can organise in these short videos from US author Jane McAlevey. 

27. What advice do you have for nurses who are hurt and angry at the actions of NZNO?

I have a written a blog, addressing directly the many NZNO members who feel let down by NZNO and asked for my thoughts on their options. I hope the advice is helpful to some people.  

28. How feasible is it to remove the Kaiwhakahaere from the NZNO board, and for Te Rūnanga to be run within NZNO as a self-contained entity (like a Maori Health Provider under DHB or PHO purview)? Maori can then have their own president, kaupapa and be responsible for their own financial decisions. Then all members of all sections could decide which section they wish to be signed with, and there need not be further powerplays.

A union is based on the belief that we’re stronger together. Achieving genuine bicultural partnership will enrich us all. 

29. How has all this impacted on you and your family?

My situation is not unique. Other people survive years of bullying at work. Some also go through long, drawn-out legal battles. Those people will understand the kind of impact this had on me and my family over the last two years.

There is one memory though which springs to mind. In 2018 the Board repeatedly refused to attend mediation to try and resolve the escalating tensions, until finally they were ordered to attend by the Employment Relations Authority. 

On 17 December 2018, just before Christmas, we met together with a mediator. As well as my lawyer, my partner and our nine year-old and twelve year-old came with me for support. I opened with a karakia, then a kōrero in Te Reo Māori and English, about the need to whai utu/restore balance in our relationship through this mediation. 

At the end of this opening, my partner and children stood up to support me with a waiata tautoko. It was “E tū, kahikatea”. As the Board’s bicultural representatives sat expressionless across the table, like they were made of stone, my family made it to the end of the song and dissolved into tears. 

It is a very hard thing to bear, when cruelty makes your children cry. 

30. Do you have any plans to return to unionism in the future? If so what?

My heart has always been with members at the coal face – the place where real nursing happens and where camaraderie and common purpose exist. I am happy and proud that now I can follow my heart and return. 

I start my new job on the ward in a week, where I will join the PSA as well and remain an active member in both unions. I have no plans at the moment to return to a formal union role (paid or unpaid). But I never say never. 

Published by grantbrookes

Kia ora! I’m Grant Brookes, a Nurse, Trade Unionist and NZNO past President now living in Pōneke Wellington, New Zealand with my partner and two children. Since graduating in 1996, I’ve practised nursing in five cities in three countries. I’ve belonged to four nursing unions – and been a rep in three of them. This is my personal blog. There’s more about me and my time as President at nznogrant.org.

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