Michele Hewitson interview: Tariana Turia

By Michele Hewitson

Tariana Turia is wary of letting people get close to her. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tariana Turia is wary of letting people get close to her. Photo / Mark Mitchell

When I last saw Tariana Turia in 2002 she said she thought of herself as a duck swimming in the wrong river.

Now, to paraphrase that noisy gander, Hone Harawira, she and co-leader Pita Sharples are paddling the wrong way: Right up the River Tory, sucking up to John Key as they swim.

He has also called them, she reminds me, "dickheads". If she has been angry about this, she is putting on a good show of being over it. She managed not to give way to one of her girlish giggles (the only thing girlish about her) when she said "dickheads", but only just.

I saw her in Wellington the day after a deal was made which allowed Harawira to quit the Maori Party to become an independent, if he would also quit slagging off his former party.

On television the night before, she looked stressed and she shook her head wearily, and warily, when asked for a comment. The next day she was running an hour and a half late and: Would it be okay if she had a very quick bite to eat? I wouldn't want her to be grumpy, would I?

I wouldn't have minded, actually, because she is always so controlled, except for those rare flashes, such as that one on the TV. She never drinks, she told me later and I said, no, she wouldn't want to lose control. "Actually, you're very astute, because that is absolutely true!" It wasn't much of a stretch. "Okay!"

She was looking, I said, very relaxed: meaning as compared to the day before. "Yeah, well," she said, "I always create that impression, apparently."

This is an odd thing for an experienced politician to say: It suggests the donning of a public persona. So, does she create that impression? "That's what people tell me - that I don't look nervous." And that's a good impression to create. "Mmm. Maybe."

She said, "I wasn't quite so clever when I came in here." She means that she would respond when reporters would ask her questions: "... trying to trick you into saying [things you don't mean]."

She is a lot more careful now, she says, which makes it sound as though she is going against her natural inclination (another thing politicians don't admit to.) She said, "I've been called passive aggressive, which has quite interested me. I'm not quite sure what that means." Well, what does she think it means? That the media "think that really I'm quite aggressive and that I have a particular way of saying things that maybe makes it look as though I'm not being aggressive. But that if you listen behind the words, I am".

I was listening pretty carefully and she didn't seem at all aggressive to me, or at least towards me. I did ask if she was aggressive and she said she wasn't known to be. I do understand the passive bit, although it looks more like stubbornness to me.

She said: "I don't think the media like me."

Why would she say that, to a journalist? I think she simply thought it, and so said it. Perhaps she's decided that if the media don't like her when she's moderating what she says, she might as well just say what she really thinks.

She said the media don't like her because "they have never got over my speech ..." She means the 2002 speech in which she used the word holocaust.

Did she make a mistake then? "No, it wasn't a mistake. It was the truth." And it caused a fuss of Hone proportions. "Absolutely it did." That she no longer says such things publicly (although she just did, which might be by way of a boo sucks to the sucking-up accusations) means, she thinks, that the media think "that somehow I'm some kind of false person".

Does she mean they think she's putting on some sort of political front, to make what she says more palatable? "Yes." So they might be right? "Yeah, they might. You know, absolutely I can hear what you're saying and I think that's probably true. That probably it seems that I haven't really changed at all, because I still believe in those things - in that way it's true." She thought for a moment and said, sounding amazed: "Perhaps I'm more of a politician than I thought I was!"

Her idea that the media don't like her - had she forgotten I was a journalist? - is baffling. I asked a senior gallery journalist and the response was: "Hugely admired" and "sincere". So I remain perplexed.

Except for this: she has an innate wariness. She said, "I think it would be fair to say that I don't have a lot of people who I would say are my friends. But those that I do have, the few that I do have, I've had most of my adult life." She doesn't let many people get close. "That's probably true ... because ... I don't think people accept the essence of other people, really."

That is a little sad; a consequence of her childhood. She was raised by her grandmother, and her mother's older sister and her husband. She thought her grandmother was her mother and that her uncle was her father. "And my grandmother died when I was 5 and my dad died when I was 14 and I think that ... I may have learned quite young that you have to protect your feelings."

Her mother did later try to tell her about her biological father. She saw knowing as a betrayal of the man she thought was her father - so she refused to listen. All she does know is that he was, probably, Native American.

"You know, I've always been really hot on whakapapa!" And she's chopped off an entire branch! "Yeah, that's true. And I never realised that that's what I was doing until my children began to want to know who he was ..."

So if you consider that she has, as she says, been "moulded" by a childhood which involved an obfuscation (however kindly meant), and an abandonment (the father disappeared knowing her mother was pregnant), you can see why she might place so much importance on whanau, and why she might be slow to trust outsiders.

I asked who her friends in Parliament were and this produced an uncomfortably long silence. She said, finally, "well, I like the people who are in the party. You know, I trust them". She does now. She said, "I trust the members of the party." As of yesterday! She ignored that with admirable, steely, ease.

I suggested she had learnt a lot from Helen Clark (who she insists she admires and gets on well with) and she shrieked with laughter.

Anyway, we had an interesting, if convoluted, time trying to untangle what she thinks is the perception of her versus her idea of herself - and whether having "learned to moderate" her words has worked for her or not. She said when she was in the Labour Party she was told to work on her relationship with the media.

She didn't say whether she was also told to work on her image. She has since had her stomach-stapling operation, but that wasn't for image, or vanity: she got a fright when she got very ill. So presumably she didn't care that she was fat. "I never took enough time to really worry about, you know, being slim ... But it was when I got sick ... I looked at myself and I wasn't very proud of what I saw." This makes it sound as though she never looked in a mirror. "I've never had time to pretty myself up or put on make-up ..." Does she now? "No!" Giggle. "You go on television and they put all that make-up on you ... All of my relatives notice ... and say: 'Gosh, you look so nice! You should do it more often."' And does she? Of course not.

She's not interested in a nice image. She's always been the cooler face of the Maori Party; Pita Sharples the warmer. "Oh, absolutely. He is a really genuinely nice person." And is she? "Probably not as nice as he is."

So, naturally, she is seen to be the person gunning for Harawira, behind the scenes.

But, honestly, she must have known how much trouble he'd be. Even before he was selected, in 2004, he'd had to apologise for calling her and Sharples "square buggers" and "dull and lifeless". She said she honestly couldn't remember that but, giggle, giggle: "We certainly know what he thinks of us now!"

What does she think of him now? She says she's always admired him for "being prepared to stand up for the things he believed in". She denies absolutely any parallels between her exit from Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed and his from the Maori Party. But is he a bit like a younger her? "Oh, well. Maybe. Maybe."

She says she has "worked really hard at keeping separate" her admiration for him on a personal level from "the political Hone. I can do that because they are different people, actually".

She was hardly going to stick the knife in after the deal has been struck, but she did speak about him with what sounded like real affection.

But there is that prevailing opinion: that she was running the Get Shot of Hone campaign. She said, cryptically, "maybe everybody's guns are pointing in the wrong direction, thinking it's always me".

If not her, then who? "I don't think that any decision that comes out of the caucus is made by one person."

Oh, everyone knows she's the real boss. "Who said?" Willie Jackson. That really made her laugh. "Who's going to believe Willie?" But that is the perception, isn't it? "You might be right."

How much of a politician is she? She had her press secretary send me a Cherokee parable about two wolves, one good and one evil, which represent the battle inside all of us. Bad wolf is anger, envy, arrogance and so on, and good wolf is peace, love, humility and so on. Which wolf wins? "The one you feed."

I emailed a question: So, is the bad wolf Hone? Her press secretary replied: "No comment!"

From Turia there was no response. I wasn't expecting one.

She's a curious and - despite what she thinks people think - very likeable duck, but she's not a silly one.

- NZ Herald

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