Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Marama Fox - Te Fox in the Beehive

The slings and arrows bounce off her and she gleefully hurls criticism but Marama Fox worries that she's sometimes not nice enough to others, writes Claire Trevett.
Maori Party list MP Marama Fox in her office at Parliament, Wellington. photo / Mark Mitchell
Maori Party list MP Marama Fox in her office at Parliament, Wellington. photo / Mark Mitchell

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox, alleged traitor, does not suffer from self-doubt.

She once had a pschyometric test.

"They said 'it was fine but it says you think highly of yourself'. And I said, 'I'm struggling to see the problem with that'."

She refers to a tweet by Herald columnist Toby Manhire, which said "all I'm saying is NZ was pretty good at the Olympics before the Maori Party betrayed Helen Clark."

Fox wasn't bothered. She tweeted "pahahahahaha" in reply.

That tweet referred to the previous week when Fox was accused of treachery most foul for saying the Maori Party had decided it could not back Helen Clark's bid for the role of UN Secretary-General.

Fox accused Clark of a poor track record when dealing with Maori rights during her time as prime minister, citing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Urewera raids and Labour's reluctance to sign the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People as examples.

"I got called a traitor, treacherous and committing treason over the Helen Clark stuff. I just giggled. That didn't really affect me, because, you know what, Maori have been called that ever since Maori have dared to put their head up and speak against the tyranny of the majority."

She said the feedback to her Facebook page was positive.

"I'm pretty sure on others it was not. If you look at the poll from Paul Henry's show on 'was Marama a treasonous cow' it was about 62 per cent said 'yes' and 38 per cent said 'no'. And I said 'Jeez, I'm winning' because if it got to 99 per cent it would have been eating into our vote."

NZ First leader Winston Peters was at the head of the pack baying for Fox's blood after her comments about Clark. It was he who described it as "treacherous in the extreme" and "petty grandstanding" to boot.

Both the Maori Party and NZ First say they could work with either National or Labour. The bigger question is whether they can work with each other.

Peters rails against the Maori Party for policies he says will create a split society.

Marama Fox at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Marama Fox at Parliament, Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Fox is not fond of Peters' policies but admires his ability to grab his audience. She has even tried to steal some of his tricks.

"[Peters] is a populist politician. He knows if he can't knock off National all he has to do is knock off its support partners, so he's after us."

She gets on okay with Peters personally. They were in Tonga together for the coronation of the Tongan king. "We had a great time." One night she picked up him up from the Nuku'alofa Club. She could not go in because he told her it was a men's club. She double-checked and it was. "You've got to check everything with Winston."

Fox says her co-leadership with Te Ururoa Flavell is a good balance.

The Maori Party's offices at Parliament have a combined reception area with Fox's offices to one side and Flavell's to the other. Fox's side of the reception area is signposted by cushions with foxes on them.

Te Ururoa translates as "shark" so they call each other "Te Fox" and "Te Shark". One of the Maori Party staffers says the two co-leaders are like chalk and cheese.

Fox: "He's lovely and gentlemanly, he's gentler than I am, which is good. People can trust him. I trust him."

Fox is not bound by ministerial collectivity as is Flavell. It gives her more space to criticise National and she gleefully takes it. She was 33 when she took part in the massive hikoi protesting the Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004.

Then she was a teacher at a kura kaupapa in the Wairarapa and remembers standing on the Masterton Town Hall steps shouting into a loud-hailer.

Co-leadership with Te Ururoa Flavell. Photo / Andrew Warner
Co-leadership with Te Ururoa Flavell. Photo / Andrew Warner

She has been with the Maori Party since then.

Fox had voted for Labour before that partly because her local MP was Parekura Horomia and there was no Maori-based party.

She recalled voting for Mana Motuhake the first time she voted in 1990, as did her mother.

She and her four siblings were raised by her mother in Christchurch, where she remembers being told off when a pupil at Christchurch Girls' High School for hanging around with other Maori children "because we looked like a gang".

Her father, a Pakeha, left when she was 4 and she had little to do with him until recently, when her own children started asking about him. She went to his funeral in Australia and learned he would set a hangi at family events in Australia.

Fox is sixth generation Mormon and proud of it, but that does not mean she is a prude. She tells a story about watching the Hurricanes playing rugby. Vince Aso was on the field. "And the commentator said 'and he's just slipped it in to Aso."

There are hoots of laughter and "oh my goodnesses".

She is slightly aggrieved the Herald once reported she did not swear but rather used words like "jingoes"and "oh my goodness".

She insists she does swear "but not the C-bomb." She does not blaspheme. Nor does she swear at home or in public, or if her mother can hear.

Her husband Ben is also Mormon as are her nine children.

"The church has been huge in our lives and raising our family inside the church has given us a really good strong family unit."

All her children were told it was their choice whether to stay with the Church, and so far all had.

She does not dispute a woman's right to choose to have an abortion but would not have one herself.

"I think it's more about being Maori, protecting our whakapapa. Religiously we support that as well, but for me it was more ingrained that it is about being Maori."

He's lovely and gentlemanly, he's gentler than I am, which is good. People can trust him. I trust him.
Marama Fox on co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell

She says she does not agree with euthanasia, also not as a religious issue but rather from sitting with dying family members.

For her, the hardest part of the job is missing home.

"I can deal with any sort of stress or attacks on me as long as home is okay. If home is not okay, then that stuff doesn't feel worth it.

"I want to do well and I want to make change, and if I can't be in a position to do that is sacrificing home time with my 5-year-old worth it?"

Asked what her greatest flaw is Fox has to think for a while.

Then she confesses all: she worries she is sometimes not nice to people.

"I try to say 'thank you' to people but it doesn't come naturally, which is terrible. There's no word for thank you in Maori, not officially. We've made one up, we go 'tena koe' or 'kia ora' but not an official word for thank you."

It's hardly the crime of the century, but she seems to think it is.

One person she does not seem to be concerned about is Imperial Tobacco spokesman Dr Alex Gietz. Fox, who smoked for eight years herself, walked out of a debate on The Nation with Gietz after describing him as a "peddler of death" and calling him "Dr Goebbels" - a reference to Joseph Goebbels, head of propaganda in Hitler's Nazi Germany.

Much stricter tobacco control measures were one of the Maori Party's biggest wins under National.

The party has sometimes been called traitorous by its own people for another reason: working as a support party for National. Fox is a bit grumpy with National at the moment because it refused to support her members' bill to allow MPs to swear the oath on the Treaty of Waitangi. She gives PM John Key a lukewarm review.

"I disagree with his thinking around the way New Zealand should be ... the economy. He absolutely believes if he makes New Zealand the best economy in the world that will benefit all New Zealanders but it doesn't. Trickle-down doesn't work.

"So I disagree with him about that but I find him pretty accommodating to most of our conversations."

Bill English is another matter. Asked if she and Key have much to do with each other, she says "well, I haven't got his cellphone number. But I don't need it. I've got Bill's [English] cellphone number. How can you not like Bill?"

There is a pause when Fox is asked whether she thinks the party can afford to go with National for another term after 2017.

"It depends if National wins outright. I was really surprised [after the last election] when every single meeting said 'go back and sit round the table, we don't want you sitting in Opposition doing nothing'.

"Where we differ we differ, but you've got to be a bit pragmatic about this.

"If I just went out and was oppositional about everything without any good cause or trying to work with them, or getting a policy change or something that would strengthen a bill or policy for Maori then, what's the point of being here?"

But there is another tricky aspect ot the job: "compromise when I don't want to."

Now there's a C-bomb that Fox struggles with.

- NZ Herald

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