Herald journalists have been spending time with party leaders for election series Leaders Unplugged: eight parties in eight days. Today, Mana's Hone Harawira opens his home to Kirsty Johnston.

Mana party leader Hone Harawira is steering a waka ashore.

That's not a metaphor for the upcoming election - it's early morning at Lake Ngatu north of Kaitaia, and Harawira has been out on the water for an hour.

Everything is quiet except for the rhythmic splashing of the paddles, until the team sights our car from their canoe.

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"Where do you want us then?" Harawira yells, not bothering first to say hello. "I told the boys to put their makeup on this morning, they're ready for their photo shoot."

It's been three years since the high-profile Maori rights activist was voted out of Parliament, and just less than 50 days until he finds out if the people of Te Tai Tokerau want him back in.

In that time he's been working with communities in the north - on a Whanau Ora contract, speaking out against methamphetamine, running a "rebel" rugby league and a programme called "Open The Curtains", aimed at helping those in poverty

He's also got back into waka ama, training three times a week "to stay alive".

"I lost touch with paddling when I was in Parliament," Harawira says. Then one day after the election was over, some of his friends asked him to join them on the lake.

"So I came out for a paddle. And then I realised there was nowhere I had to be so I just kept paddling."

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17 Jul, 2017 3:00am
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ROTORUA DAILY POST
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Hone Harawira feeds his grandson Manu, 11 months at the breakfast table at his home near Kaitaia in the far north. Photo / Mike Scott
Hone Harawira feeds his grandson Manu, 11 months at the breakfast table at his home near Kaitaia in the far north. Photo / Mike Scott

The others in the waka - including a fisherman, a forestry tutor and a fellow head of a Maori trust - also paddle to keep fit, needing something that doesn't "knock your bones around" like running or rugby.

"For me it was about my health," says paddler James Tattersall. While they're friends with Harawira, the water is a neutral zone. "Hone's pretty good, he doesn't talk much about politics when we're here."

After the photo shoot is done - with Harawira's wife, Hilda, arriving in time to have a turn around the lake as well - it's time to go home.

Today Harawira is driving a grunty, grey Holden with a police scanner and a pair of tino rangatiratanga flags stuck to the roof. It's not his car. His nephew needed a truck for some building work - repairing houses - so Harawira offered his.

"I don't actually know where my truck is at the moment. It could be anywhere," he says. "It will come back."

The Harawira house is at Awanui, just north of Kaitaia. When the family first arrived in the north - with five kids in tow - they lived in a two-room whare next to what is now the main home. Harawira's daughter now stays there, with another sleepout currently under construction for extra bodies, should they need it.

Right now, eight people make up the family, Harawira says - three mokopuna, two daughters, one daughter's husband, Harawira, and Hilda.

However, as Harawira is eating his eggs on toast another young man walks into the room.

"Uncle, can I borrow your gumboots please," he says.

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira at his home near Kaitaia in the far north. Photo / Mike Scott
Mana Party leader Hone Harawira at his home near Kaitaia in the far north. Photo / Mike Scott

"Yes you can, Boss, thank you for asking," Harawira replies. Who's that, we ask.

"Oh, that's Boss! My nephew. He lives here too. I forgot about him."

As we talk, more members of the family come and go. They speak a mix of English and Maori, sometimes in the same sentence. Maioha, 11, makes everyone a cup of tea. It's no bother, she says, she's used to making enough for 24 - the total number when all the whanau come around.

While Harawira has a shower, we ask her about her grandfather, who she calls "Papa". Harawira warns her to "only say nice things".

Maioha rolls her eyes. She loves living there, she says, but Harawira "is a grouch when he doesn't get his ways".

"He comes in and he's like 'coffee' and I have to make it."

Her cousin, Maramara, 14, has just come back from Auckland. She likes it in Kaitaia better, she says. Both girls go to the kura kaupapa down the road, Te Rangi Aniwaniwa , where their grandmother was the long-time principal, and where she still works.

Hilda and Harawira have been together since they were just teenagers. "Hilda went to university to get her masters, I went to university and got Hilda," Harawira says. They had their first child at 18, but he was brought up by Harawira's mum.

Whangai - Maori adoption - is common among the family, Harawira says. He and Hilda "stole" a grandson to bring up too, and he now considers himself one of Harawira's kids. "Whangai ... we don't even think about it. It's such a natural thing."

At some points, however, having so many in the house was a strain. Harawira tells how once, when he took in a nephew when his own son was a teenager, he had to explain to both boys that there was no money for new clothes. "We had to get everything from the hokohoko (secondhand) shop," he says. "But they got used to it."

As breakfast is finishing, the baby of the house wakes up. Manu is 1 year old, and the apple of Harawira's eye. He gets to share his Papa's eggs, and when he gets restless is pushed about in his red bike.

"He's a joy, he just warms my soul," Harawira says. On some days, like today, the whole house empties out and it's just the two of them left. Other days, Harawira heads to his office in town, but always looks forward to coming home and seeing "his boy". They talk over video call when Harawira is away.

Harawira says he truly loves his work, and finds that his deep connections within the community allow him to speak more widely about local issues.

"The stuff I do out here gives me personal credibility. I feel good when I talk about things in Parliament that I know from my life outside Parliament," he says. As he's speaking, Manu lifts his arms to be picked up. Harawira pulls him from his bike and kisses his curls.

"But you asked me about after the last election? Well. Work is important, but look at him, he's even more important. When the mokopuna are here the rest of it doesn't matter."