17 Apr 2024

'I thought we were friends': Dave Letele reveals falling out with PM Christopher Luxon

3:00 pm on 17 April 2024

In an interview for RNZ's new show 30 with Guyon Espiner, community advocate Dave Letele reveals how his relationship with Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has been derailed.

During last year's election campaign, motivation fitness guru and community advocate Dave Letele turned up at National Party fundraisers.

National leader Christopher Luxon supported Letele when his community food bank was burgled. The two were on friendly, text messaging terms.

"My Labour friends would go: 'What are you doing?'" Letele says.

"Well, I've got to explore options. We support whoever is going to support us. I've got friends that are hardcore Labour, and I've got friends on the right. They support the work that I'm doing. Anything else doesn't really matter."

But two weeks out from election day, Letele put his name to an open letter from Māori and community leaders calling out "race-baiting for votes".

The next time he messaged Luxon, to congratulate him on a good joke, the response was much cooler, Letele says.

"The problem now with Chris, is that I signed that letter," Letele says.

"He was on the news, and he had made a joke about something, so I texted him later and said, 'Good work'. And his reply was: 'Why did you sign the letter?'

"I said, 'Let's just catch up and go over it in person.' But it hasn't worked out that way. I thought we were friends. What's the problem? I mean, you should call out racism."

In a statement, Luxon said there was "absolutely no rift".

"I am a great admirer of Dave and his work. I have visited his facility and even helped pack boxes for his charity and donated personally to BBM," Luxon said.

"There are many people I have not had regular contact with since the election and that is simply because of the demands of the job."

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Running for Parliament 'inevitable'

Letele flirted with a run for Parliament with Te Pati Māori in the Manurewa seat at last year's election but eventually opted not to stand.

He tells 30 with Guyon Espiner he continues to "go over" the idea of a run for Parliament.

"I have so many people saying, 'oh, it'll change you, don't do it.' And I thought, this is why we end up with the politicians we have now. If every good person that has a community following says, 'I'm going to join politics,' and everyone tells them not to, and they don't, then that's why we don't have any good politicians.

"I think at some stage it's inevitable."

He is still most likely to stand with Te Pati Māori "only because they'd be the party to let me be me".

Letele on bootcamps and gangs

In his interview with Espiner, Letele offers his critiques of two policies he has first-hand experience with.

So-called youth "bootcamps" have similarities with the work his BBM programme does, but the government's plans have problems, he says.

Oranga Tamariki should not be charge of the programmes because it is already struggling to do its existing work, he says.

"These kids are used to being treated like shit. So treating them like even more shit, treating them harshly, what's that going to do? They're used to it. But what they're not used to is love.

"Of course, you've got to train them hard, like we do with our rangitahi programmes. But we also have to support them.

"It's not just about getting shouted out and made to climb mountains and getting abused mentally."

Dave Letele in studio with Guyon Espiner.

Letele is the first guest on RNZ's new multimedia show, 30 with Guyon Espiner Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Letele says he's had little response from the government to his offer to play a role in running boot camps with a more community-based approach.

"The problem with these bureaucrats and politicians, is they don't listen. They think they know best, they think they can run everything from Wellington. It doesn't work that way.

"You've got to walk alongside these families long term, support them long term. It's not popular to instead say, we're going to invest in these families, so that life's better for the grandkids."

And when it comes to policy on gangs, from banning patches in public to allowing for gang membership to have extenuating circumstances during sentences, Letele is equally critical.

"You cannot imprison your way out of it. When you've got kids joining gangs, and being patched at nine years old, throwing someone in prison doesn't solve anything.

"You can't reduce gang numbers by throwing more people in prison, because prison is the biggest breeding ground for gangs. We have to deal with the root issue here. You can't imprison your way out of poverty."