NZ's longest-serving female MP passes away

Dame Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan - New Zealand's longest-serving female MP - has passed away at the age of 79. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Dame Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan - New Zealand's longest-serving female MP - has passed away at the age of 79. File photo / Mark Mitchell

New Zealand's longest serving female MP, Dr the Honourable Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, has died.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan, 79, was a Labour MP between 1967 and 1996 and held the roles of Minister of Tourism, Associate Minister of Social Welfare and Minster for the Environment.

She died at Wellington Hospital early Wednesday, having suffered a severe stroke a week earlier.

She was cremated at a private ceremony in Wellington today.

A public memorial service would be held a Wellington's Cathedral of St Paul on August 12.

In a statement her family said her immediate family were constantly at her bedside and in the first few days before her condition deteriorated they were able to communicate with her in several ways and say their goodbyes.

Labour MP Parekura Horomia told NZPA Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan's death was a great loss for Maoridom.

"We've certainly lost a great Maori woman leader,'' he said.

"She was pioneer of a whole lot of women's rights issues, especially in Maoridom, she challenged the male-dominated bastion, both in the Maori world and in New Zealand overall.

"She certainly broke down a lot of barriers and was one of the first into a whole lot of forums where Maori generally never partook.''

Acting prime minster Gerry Brownlee and Christopher Finlayson, Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, said Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan's death was a "terrible loss''.

"Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan was an inspiring leader of her people and a genuinely great New Zealander,'' they said in a joint statement.

"She was a graceful and charming person who cut short her academic career in early 1967, after the death of her father, to return to New Zealand to enter political life.''

Maori Party co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia said Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan was a trail-blazing politician with strong principles and a compassionate heart.

"We are devastated to hear of Whetu's sudden death. Her passing feels like the end of an era.''

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan was a staunch advocate for te reo Maori and called on Parliament to make it one of New Zealand's official languages, Dr Sharples said.

She was also an early supporter of Maori broadcasting, he said.

As a daughter of a long-serving MP, Sir Eruera Tirikatene, Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan entered politics early, becoming the founding president of the New Zealand Maori Students Federation and vice-president of Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association in 1960.

"During her career, Whetu has served iwi well, through her advocacy and passion for the people, leading to such advances as the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, Marae and Papakainga Housing, Maori broadcasting, the protection of Maori fishing grounds, the tangata whenua vote, and many other areas of our lives,'' Dr Sharples said.

Ms Turia said Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan made an "extraordinary'' contribution to New Zealand.

"Whetu was a committed member of Ratana Church; a staunch supporter of the Maori Women's Welfare League; and a passionate community advocate - long before and after her distinguished parliamentary career,'' she said.

"She struck a distinctive presence wherever she went. I well remember her incredible sense of fashion design - those long flowing gowns with the gorgeous koru prints always made her stand out in the crowd.''

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand in 1993.

She is survived by her husband Denis, her children May-Ana and Tiri and two grand-children.

- NZPA

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