Deborah Coddington
Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Dining with the leaders: Whanau focus fuels final charge


Midweek dinner is very much a family affair at the Wellington home of Tariana Turia. Surrounded by children, grand-children and husband George, the Maori Party co-leader looks radiant as she faces the polls for the last time. Deborah Coddington joins them for dinner.

Tariana Turia helps granddaughter Piata prepare dinner. Photo / Anthony Phelps
Tariana Turia helps granddaughter Piata prepare dinner. Photo / Anthony Phelps

"I feel a fraud because I rarely cook," confesses the Honourable Tariana Turia as she introduces me to various family members helping prepare the evening meal.

It turns out George Turia, her husband of 49 years, does the cooking. But tonight daughter Lisa (known as Lise) is preparing a special meal - stuffed chicken breasts, fresh asparagus, new potatoes and freshly baked rolls.

The Te Tai Hauauru MP had intended to cook on this occasion, writing down preparation instructions that morning for George. "But when Lise saw them she said, 'no we can't have that' and she completely changed it and she's gone all fancy," says Tariana. "I asked if I could just cut the ends off the strawberries and she told me to just get out of the kitchen.

"After I chopped the end off my finger at the marae, I think she thinks I'm a bit hopeless."

So tonight, for appearances, we're calling Tariana executive chef. As it's nearing the end of the election campaign, I expected her to be tuckered out but she's glowing and dressed in a black outfit offset with a bright pink top.

Born in 1944, Tariana has already announced this will be her last parliamentary term. She'll be 70 when she leaves. George quickly agrees he's looking forward to this day in 2014 when they "go home" to Whanganui.

One of Tariana's 28 grandchildren, 10-year-old Piata, who lives here and is as tricky as a truckful of monkeys, runs into the large, immaculate lounge decorated in the red and black of Maori Party colours, and helps herself to mixed nuts from a bowl on the couch.

Tariana's grandson Amaru, who lives close by, is here with his friend, Eruera. So the full roll-call for dinner is Tariana, George, son Pahia and his son, Pakai Tore (who lives with Tariana), Lisa, Pahia's partner, Ngela, Piata, Amaru, Eruera and Helen Leahy, Tariana's chief of staff.

After a short karakia, we begin eating and the kai is good indeed. Conversation turns to Tariana's trip to Kerikeri the previous night, where she supported Maori Party candidate Waihoroi (Wassie) Shortland in Maori Television's Te Tai Tokerau candidates' debate.

She doesn't say anything too negative about her party's nemesis, Hone Harawira, apart from the fact that he seemed fairly flat in the debate.

Never mind about Hone, I'm more interested in the policy statements Tariana's released lately. On Tuesday, she expressed "outrage" at the Ministry of Health's attitude towards family members who are caregivers for whanau with disabilities. If strangers take care of these people they get paid, she says, but family members do not, even though they "take care of their own at huge expense and stress.

"It is mostly Maori, Pacific and migrant communities who want to - and will - take care of family members, but it's different in Pakeha communities.

"But the attitude from the ministry is that these Maori, Pacific and migrant communities shouldn't be paid to be caregivers because then they will just do it for the income. It's a spurious argument and it doesn't wash."

It does seem a bureaucratic anomaly and something the Minister will continue to work on changing when she's back in the House.

We move on to pudding - fresh strawberry and kiwifruit salad with icecream, cream and meringues made by Lise which truly are to die for.

Piata - "Baby", as Tariana calls her - takes a plateful of strawberries, insisting she can eat them all.

The whole time we're talking, this minister of the Crown has kept one eye on her mokopuna. She tries hard to stay in touch with their educational progress and attends as many school functions as possible.

George, she says, is the quiet one in the background with daily routines that he sticks to like clockwork - dinner by 6pm every night, laundry washed and dried every day.

As a family, they've always believed strongly in not being dependent on the state. "George was one of 15 children raised in a two-bedroom house with very strict work ethics. He was barely 16 when I met him and self-employed by the time he was 21."

Before Tariana entered Parliament as a list MP for Labour in 1996, she was already active in Maori organisations - Kura Kaupapa, Kohanga Reo, health providers "and I was involved in helping our people start small businesses".

She and George raised their children on the family farm where they were taught to be independent, believe in self-determination and the value of hard work. "When the local marae burned down, my husband took two years off to help rebuild it, and me and my children ran the farm on our own. We'd done the hard yards when I went into Parliament."

Then Tariana did the hard yards all over again when the Labour government passed the controversial Foreshore and Seabed Act. Tariana announced her resignation, Prime Minister Helen Clark stripped her of her ministerial posts, the Maori Party was formed and Tariana won the Maori seat as the party's co-leader.

Does she hate Labour, as is thought? "No, I don't. I went with Labour for all the wrong reasons, a bit blindly.

"But there are some really good young leaders coming up through the Maori Party so when I step down in three years' time, and when Pita [Sharples, party co-leader] steps down, I know we will be leaving the party stronger than ever."

Piata comes to her Nanny for a goodnight kiss, trying to read my notes and asking if I'm going to stay the night. She's an outrageously lovable child in a non-precocious, unaffected manner. In another decade, I can see her striding the political stage.

So what will be Tariana's biggest drive in this coming Parliament?

"Deliver Whanau Ora across every state agency and to all aspects of our lives, to Pakeha, Pasifika, migrant communities. While we can give a hand up, we can also achieve vision, a focus for the future for families. If family is the problem then I firmly believe then family is also the solution."

It's late. Leaving is like saying goodnight to kin, such is the warmth of Tariana and George Turia. Even when I was a vicious Act MP, attacking wananga, Tariana would share the elevator and smile sweetly. Manaakitanga.

I look back in the dark from the top of the street and under the porch light the couple stands, watching me safely to my car.

- Herald on Sunday

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