Long-serving politician 'a glass ceiling breaker'

By Yvonne Tahana

Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan was regarded as a trailblazer for women and Maori. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan was regarded as a trailblazer for women and Maori. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Ten-term parliamentarian Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan swept through the Beehive stylishly while breaking barriers for women and Maori, family members say.

Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan, a member of the Order of NZ, died two weeks ago after a stroke, and her public memorial is being held at Wellington's Cathedral of St Paul today.

The 79-year-old held Southern Maori for Labour from 1967 to 1996, following in the footsteps of her father, Sir Eruera Tirikatene.

Raised at Ratana Pa and named by the Ratana movement's leader, she served her political apprenticeship as secretary to Sir Eruera and through involvement in church and Ngai Tahu business.

Former Cabinet minister Sandra Lee, a cousin, remembers Mrs Tirikatene-Sullivan lobbying Ms Lee's father - then a leading figure in the powerful Wellington Waterside Union - for political backing in the 1960s.

"It's funny how times change. When Whetu came to solicit dad's support I remember dad said she'd have it. She was single at the time. Dad came home and he said, "The waterside union executive want to know, but what say she gets married?

"It wouldn't even be a question now."

The Ngai Tahu woman was a trailblazer in other important ways. She was the first Maori female Cabinet minister in the 1970s under Prime Minister Norman Kirk, and brought her infant children to Parliament with her.

"This is about those so-called glass ceilings," said Ms Lee. "In so many ways she was a ceiling-breaker."

And the MP did these things stylishly, wearing bright kowhaiwhai-patterned kaftans to work.

"She'd march into Parliament looking like a million dollars but looking like a million dollars Maori. It would have been pretty risky for her to do it when it would have been easier to wear a tweed suit."

Southern Maori used to include not only the South Island but extend up towards the Hawkes Bay. Serving that vast constituency was a duty she took seriously.

"She held her electorate clinics out of an old gold bomb [car] she kept at Christchurch airport. It was a gas guzzler. But ... you could always see it down there," Ms Lee said.

Her brother, Kukupa Tirikatene, said there was only one song he felt right to farewell her.

"I remember that dad and her gave me a waiata. This waiata speaks about Aorangi [Mt Cook], it talks about an imaginary snowflake which is lifted up by the winds of time to fall as teardrops into the water ... to join with waters wherever you are. It's a poetic way of saying she's from Te Waipounamu [the South Island] and so I sang that waiata ... and I think she would have liked it."

She is survived by husband Denis, son Tiri, daughter May-Ana and two mokopuna.

- NZ Herald

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