A word with... Wira Gardiner

By John Roughan

The National Party has come a long way to make its governing pact with the Maori Party, and Wira Gardiner has seen the journey from the inside.

The Ngati Awa businessman, formerly a leading Maori public servant and trouble-shooter for National and Labour Governments, has been a National Party member for 30 years.

His membership somehow survived Don Brash's Orewa speech a few years ago, though it was a close call for him and his wife Hekia Parata, now newly elected to Parliament on National's list.

"We seriously contemplated whether the National Party was ever going to be the party for us," he says, "but in the end we didn't abandon it, we just went to sleep for a while."

The Orewa setback had followed a period of notable progress for Maori in the party under the leadership of Bill English, who was worried that National was losing touch with the changing character of New Zealand.

It was in danger of becoming a "middle-aged white man's party", as Gardiner puts it, incapable of representing the country's modern face. "If we didn't change we were likely to disappear in another couple of election cycles."

By 2002 the efforts of Gardiner, Parata and others had signed up enough members to send 100 Maori delegates to the annual conference.

After a strenuous debate they convinced the conference to vote down the hardy-annual resolution for abolition of the Maori seats.

At National's disastrous election that year, Parata was placed high enough on the party list to have entered Parliament had National won one more seat. Had that happened, English says, she would have been a front-bencher by now, a sitter for the Cabinet John Key formed this week.

Instead the leadership changed, Orewa happened, National became a middle-aged white man's party until the leadership changed again.

Key has resumed the effort to broaden the party's appeal, though it is still the party's policy to abolish the Maori seats sometime. Gardiner is not sure how that has survived; until a decade or so ago National adhered to a consensus that the seats should remain until Maori decided they no longer needed them.

Key's government agreement with the Maori Party reflects what Gardiner calls "a great deal of congruence" between the basic principles of the National Party and Maori manners and attitudes. Both, he says, place a high value on individual rights, wealth creation, looking after the family, and the rule of law.

When Tariana Turia says welfare is not good for her people, National people admire her immensely.

Gardiner believes another crucial element in the partnership will be the mode of dealing "rangatira to rangatira". The fact that Pita Sharples has been made Minister of Maori Affairs far outweighs the fact that he is not in the Cabinet.

The Treaty was agreed chief-to-chief, he says, and it will be vital that Key observes the courtesies by which Maori work.

National, he believes, also needs to get up to speed on the Maori media, the discussion in Maori on dedicated television programmes and the 22 Iwi radio stations.

National, he says, has no idea how "outrageous" and influential those channels can be in Maori politics, and National's view needs to be better heard there.

But he celebrates the progress, noting National have come out of this election with more Maori MPs, seven, than any other party. Labour has six, the Maori Party five.

And behind John Key, there are Cabinet members who Gardiner believes will be strengths in the partnership. "Not just Bill [English] but Gerry [Brownlee] - who was touted for Maori Affairs Minister once and I think he would have made a very good one."

He also mentions new Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, the Wellington lawyer who has had a long association with Maori Treaty claims and cases. He took Ngai Tahu's appeal to the Privy Council.

And Anne Tolley, Education Minister, who knows Maori well from her community service in Hawkes Bay and Gisborne.

The partnership Key has forged with the Maori is a recognition, Gardiner says, that an independent Maori Party is going to be a sustained presence on the political landscape and National will need a relationship with it sooner or later.

Beyond that, Gardiner does not seem as excited as he might be. He sees Maori's ultimate interests better served by economic sovereignty than a by "flag waving on a hill".

Chairman of his tribe's major investment company, Ngati Awa Group Holdings, and a director of a number of its subsidiaries, he reckons the Ngati Awa group will be the largest business in the Eastern Bay of Plenty within 50 years, creating not just wealth for their people but the confidence that wealth, education and security can bring.

"With that sort of economic sovereignty you don't need to be waving a flag on a hill."

Orewa was an aberration, Gardiner insists. Over National's long history the party has presided over a great deal of Maori progress.

He cites the advances such as the foundation of Ratana village in the 1950s, the establishment of the Maori Women's Welfare League, the Maori Council and Maori wardens in the 1960s and kohanga reo under the Muldoon Government.

"People are amazed when you tell them this, and of course the National Party can't tell you. It's a flaw of the party that it isn't aware of its contribution."

By the time National returned to power in the 1990s Gardiner himself was playing a leading role in Maori affairs.

Retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he had been appointed director of the Waitangi Tribunal by the Lange Government, then general manager of the Iwi Transition Agency that turned the Department of Maori Affairs into the leaner operation for policy advice.

Under National he became the first chief executive of the Ministry of Maori Development, Te Puni Kokiri, where he met Hekia Parata. At the end of his term in 1995 they set up a private consultancy to advise tribes on investments and government agencies on Treaty issues.

At 65, he also has interests in a hotel, a garage, two manuka honey companies and a holiday homes letting business.

- NZ Herald

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