Gardiner is the third of 18 children. After a "juvenile raid" on a department store in Rotorua he was made a ward of court at the age of 10 and put into his grandparents' custody as a tamaiti whangai for the rest of his childhood.
He did very badly in school but joined the Army at 18 and did well, retiring as a lieutenant colonel at 38. He became director of civil defense and in 1988 joined the Waitangi Tribunal, which mostly hears cases relating to Maori land and civil rights. He was then appointed head of the Iwi Transition Agency, and then chief executive of Te Puni Kokiri, the NZ Ministry of Maori Development. In 1987 he ran unsuccessfully as a National Party candidate for Parliament.
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