The passing of a great Aucklander – my eulogy for Phil Jew visionary builder of Auckland’s regional parks network

I was privileged to be asked to give the final eulogy, along with Judge Arnold Turner, Sandra Coney and Sir Barry Curtis for the great Auckland regional parks general manager Phil Jew at his funeral last Saturday:

“I wish to thank Claire, Bernadette, Leo and Rosemary on behalf of the Jew family for asking me to speak today on this sad occasion as we say our last farewell to Phil.

“If you seek his monument look around you”

Judge Arnold Turner reminds us, he was the first chairman of Regional Parks to serve with Phil, I was privileged to be the last to serve with Phil Jew when he was Auckland Regional Council’s general manager parks. This was from late October 1992 to the end of March 1993. Those five months were an unforgettable experience for me, and I must say a cherished highlight of my time in public service. 

It was an unusual time in the history of Auckland. In Graeme Murdoch’s classic ‘Dreamers of the Day – a history of Auckland’s Regional Parks’, the chapter for that period is aptly entitled  ‘Changing Times’.

Phil had just steered what was then called ‘the regional parks service’ through some very difficult political challenges, starting with the ARA so-called ‘New Deal’ of the 1980s, followed by the consequences of profound central government policy changes the outcome of what was known at the time as ‘Rogernomics’ and ‘Ruthenasia’. Reforms which resulted in the break up of the old Auckland Regional Authority (ARA) – A process which began about 1990 and we now know culminated in 2010 with the complete abolition of the ARC and its absorption by the new Auckland Council – the so-called ‘Super City’,

An earlier plan by the government in 1991 to break up the regional parks network had been skilfully headed off by Phil working with Judge Arnold Turner, and other former chairs of regional parks Jim Holdaway, Alan Brewster, John Pettit and others. Together using their networks they rallied considerable public opposition from a broad cross-section of Aucklanders. This was sufficient to persuade the government to back off. John Pettit is also here today. I also acknowledge Bill Burrell. I think Arnold, John, myself, Bill and Sandra are the last living parks chairs.

Mike Lee chairman of Regional Parks with Phil Jew general manager Regional Parks, at the Regional Botanic Gardens February 1993.

By the time I came on to the ARC at a by-election in February 1992, Phil was planning to retire the following year (aged only 64) after 47 years of public service – 20 years in Auckland City Council and 27 years in the ARA/ARC.

By that time the regional parks and the regional parks service with its popular uniformed parks rangers had become an elite entity of New Zealand local government, widely admired and respected across New Zealand – and indeed internationally. Phil’s last project in early 1993, his last committee meeting, was winning parks committee approval for the building of the magnificent Arataki Visitor Centre which I described at the time “as the finishing brush strokes of a masterpiece”

The role of general manager parks at that time it seemed had enormous status.  This was not only due to Phil’s own considerable mana but also to the popularity of the regional parks themselves – and the widespread respect for the parks service – that Phil had done much to create.

Phil had drawn into the service some outstanding dedicated rangers and administrators – a few were of his own generation – I should mention Bill Beveridge – many of them were somewhat younger – all of whom had been instilled with a zeal for the regional parks and what they stood for. Many are present today. I acknowledge Rob Small, Phil’s 2IC and successor as general manager, Chris Howden and Jack Hobbs. I also acknowledge Mace Ward who was the ARC’s last general manager regional parks. Please accept my apologies for missing any others present.

As for Phil and my relationship, I had been nominated for the position of chairman of parks by the newly-elected chairman of the ARC Phil Warren. Usually it took years of seniority to become the chair of parks and I had only been elected to the council representing the left wing Alliance 8 months previously. Moreover I had only the previous month, September 1992, been arrested in a Greenpeace direct action off Wynyard Wharf protesting at the dumping of contaminated harbour dredgings off the Noises. I am not sure if Phil Jew viewed my elevation as a completely unmixed blessing.

At our first meeting in his office in late October 1992 after he had briefed me, he then asked for my thoughts. [Phil would normally wear elegantly cut suits, out in the field an off-white windbreaker, but in his office he usually donned a grey blue cardigan but always a collar and tie and tie pin.. He had a habit of peering over his reading glasses retained by a cord around his neck. This I imagined might have been intimidating if one was a subordinate, especially if one’s work had not been up to scratch!].

 I requested that I would like to see at every committee meeting at least one uniformed ranger and I asked that cut flowers from the Botanic Gardens be brought into regional house to decorate committee room No 1. for the committee meetings. He particularly liked that idea (and it was a custom that was maintained for many years).  That I believe got us off to a good start. After that, despite our generational difference (or probably because if it) we got on very well. Phil could see that I shared a genuine commitment to the regional parks vision and he also recognised my respect and admiration for him as a person.

Happy days at Wenderholm Regional Park. Senior ranger Norm Judd, mayor of Rodnet Doug Armstrong, Phil Jew and Mike Lee. December 1992.

Looking back through the years my memories of the period are highlighted by a typical scene. I had asked Phil to be taken on an inspection of each regional park, prior to the standard tour for newly-elected members. In my mind’s eye it is a summer’s day in early 1993 – we are typically at Shakespear Regional Park. Phil  having parked the car at a high vantage point. From the boot, where packed lunches and thermos flasks had been thoughtfully stowed, he would take out map, spreading it over the boot. He would then recount the history of the park, the often difficult political and financial challenges of purchasing the property and then the story of how it was transformed into a regional park and what still needed to be done – pointing out geographical features and describing the landscape – almost in poetical terms – in his quiet voice.

I should at this point, add to Judge Turner’s comments in regard to the background, the rationale for the creation of these regional parks –  for many years unique to Auckland.  I here quote a passage that I wrote in the Preface of Dreamers of the Day’ back in 2010 when I was the chairman of the ARC.

“Auckland’s regional parks network was first envisaged by the visionary planners and regionalist politicians who founded the ARA. They were aware that the nearest national parks lay some 400km from Auckland and were anxious both to provide outdoors recreation outlets for Auckland’s rapidly growing population and to protect the regions outstanding coastal landscapes from suburban sprawl. Over the past 50 years there has been a race against time to protect those areas, and to secure them for present and future generations.”

“This book records the vision, deeds and leadership of these great Aucklanders who with the help of many others, built and shaped Auckland’s regional parks. Graeme Murdoch has called them ‘dreamers of the day’; Colin McCahon once subtitled one of this famous NZ paintings ‘a landscape with too few lovers’. McCahon’s reproach to New Zealanders cannot be applied to the dreamers – who dedicated themselves to saving Auckland’s beautiful landscape with an ardour close to romantic love.”

Phil Jew was one of those dreamers. As we have heard, he loved Auckland greatly.  And when Phil spoke of Auckland he more often that not talked of the Auckland region – the big picture of regional Auckland.

He was a punctilious, hardworking public servant of the old-school  – in the era before the rise of ‘managerialism’ and the excesses of today’s management culture. He was also an astute political manoeuvrer who made his way through the minefield of politics, always guided by the public interest and his vision for his beloved regional parks.

And clearly he understood that it was his reputation not only for efficiency, but for honesty and integrity that had protected him through those turbulent years when many others had become political casualties.

“You’ve got to be squeaky clean,” he would say again and again.

His regional parks service was a self-contained entity, with its own branding – the iconic Pohutukawa logo, its own finance section a small education section and small publicity section.  At the time there were, depending how you categorize them, 18 regional parks in 33,000 ha of land, covering 92 km of coastline attracting 5 million visits per year. And of course the regional parks service was Auckland’s biggest farmer. As has been noted Phil had a particular passion for the Regional Botanic Gardens and the successful preparation of Mt Smart regional park for the 1990 Commonwealth Games was a triumph for him, the regional parks service and the ARC.

Phil ran a tight ship with the minimum of bureaucracy – the main focus were the parks rangers who were expected to be hands on and in the field.

An exacting, self-disciplined administrator he demanded high standards of his subordinates.

The other evening I spoke to former senior ranger Norm Judd who for many years managed the western sector and held other senior roles in the service. He is currently on his way to the Sub-Antarctic Island and sends his condolences.

Norm (Phil always called him Norman) summed up what it was like to work for regional parks under Phil Jew in that golden era – “friendly, fatherly, benign, knowing that everything was in safe hands.”

If the Auckland Regional Parks network and the Regional Parks service was an Auckland triumph, a victory for the ARA, for the ARC, for regional government at its best – it was Phil Jew who was the architect of victory.

Farewell function for Phil Jew as General manager Parks March 1993. With former regional parks chairmen, Mike Lee, Jim Holdaway, Assid Corban, Judge Arnold Turner, Phil Jew, Doug Armstrong, Fred Barber, John Pettit.

I was due to meet Phil once again in late 2018 for a birthday celebration arranged by former ARC/ARA planner Geoff Wynn – unfortunately Phil became ill so the party was postponed to February and then cancelled. Sadly it never happened.

But to conclude I want to return to Phil’s retirement in 1993 and the newspaper articles and editorial that that event stimulated

A NZ Herald editorial at the time noted that regional parks were considered the ‘jewel in the crown of regional government’ and recalled “initial plans to reform regional government hatched in Wellington and nurtured in consultants rooms had treated the jewels with some disdain” and pointed out these plans had had to be abandoned due the sheer popularity of regional parks among Aucklanders.

The editorial concluded “It also requires an acknowledgement of the debt of gratitude Auckland owes to the parks general manager, Mr Jew who has guided the network since its humble inception 27 years ago. The parks he helped create, particularly his dream of a botanic garden, bear their own tribute. Future generations are indeed fortunate.”

In the accompanying article Judge Arnold Turner who was described as the man who installed Mr Jew as the General Manager of regional parks said of Phil “ In his quiet and unobtrusive way he has contributed most markedly to Auckland in a way which will last for decades, and perhaps centuries.”

And as chairman of parks I am quoted as saying that Phil Jew would be remembered as “one of the visionaries of Auckland along with the likes of Sir Dove Myer Robinson” and that he was one of New Zealand’s “post-war builders who had made regional parks part of Auckland’s contemporary culture.”

And finally I would like to quote briefly from my farewell speech to Phil Jew from the 31 March 1993 which I have hear somewhat yellowed with age.

Can I close my remarks then by highlighting what I consider to be Phil Jew’s great technical achievement apart from preservation of so much land in public ownership. And that achievement is a balanced model of pastoral farming harmoniously set alongside New Zealand’s indigenous rain forest. In the past New Zealand which has been so reliant upon pastoral farming has destroyed much of the indigenous forest cover, a practice not ecologically and in the end economically sustainable.  Phil Jew has shown the way with an integrated, harmonious model of sound land management – efficient farming practice with ecological protection and landscape enhancement – fencing off watercourse, steep slopes etc to allow native bush regeneration.

Anyone who has been on an inspection tour with Phil and looked at the land will know he has an administrator’s mind for organisation and detail and an artists eye and soul for aesthetics and beauty.”

At that crowded farewell function at Regional House where many people came to pay tribute to Phil, his staff, led by senior rangers Dave Hayes and the late Peter Rowberry presented him with a colour television. On behalf of the elected members of the ARC I presented Phil with what I described at the time as “…an antique broach, a tie pin of greenstone and gold which represents the two founding cultures of modern New Zealand and if you like represents the harmony of pastoral farming and native forest which is Phil’s great achievement. I would like to close with the words carved in stone in St Paul’s Cathedral for the great English architect Christopher Wren for the millions of parks visitors of present and future ‘If you seek his monument…look around you’.

Goodbye Phil and thank you.

To Clare and the Jew family, my sincere condolences.”

Last days of the ARC – and as chairman of the ARC – and my last photo with Phil Jew. At the launch of ‘Dreamers of the Day – a history of Auckland’s Regional Parks’ by Graeme Murdoch. October 2010.

Philip Joseph Jew legendary leading creator of the regional parks network.

17 Febrary 1929 – 10 November 2019

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2 Responses

  1. Graeme Lovell-Gadd says:

    Thankyou Mike. Phil lead a great team for a long time and never let go of his vision for what the Regional Parks would become ‘The Jewel In the Crown for Auckland ‘

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