Crusader leaves a lesson in respect

By Laurel Stowell


Under  her measured delivery there's a slow-burning fuse that drives Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia.

"This is a fight for justice," she says - and that sums it up. "I will always fight for justice but I always do try to be a bit respectful about it."

She's sitting on a sofa in the downstairs room of her Whanganui electorate office. It's a spacious one, with anonymous furnishings and a secretary's desk in the corner.

Upstairs, at least three people are waiting for her attention and another staff member is keeping them at bay. But still she doesn't hurry.

Thinking back to the 1999 occupation of Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens, she remembers how Whanganui's older Maori were saddened by the reaction of Pakeha, whom they thought they had been getting on well with.

More recently, she was shocked by negative public reaction to adding an "H" to the spelling of Wanganui.

Another nasty surprise was public reaction to the question of customary Maori ownership of New Zealand's foreshore and seabed.

It could have been settled in court but the Labour Party passed a law that gave the Crown ownership of land below the high-tide mark.

The issue turned into a political football with talk of Maori banning people from beaches - something Mrs Turia said was never going to happen.

"All of that really signalled to me how others would always serve the interests of their constituency and do whatever they could to create divisions between Maori and non-Maori. I found that appalling."

She left the Labour Party and spent a few months as an independent MP - a dreadful time. She felt isolated, with most politicians agreeing with Labour and lots of "anti" talk going around. "It made people feel as if they had a right to say things which normally they would have thought but never said."

Despite breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori had generally behaved respectfully, she said. "It should be a two-way street."

Mrs Turia went into Parliament to make things right for Maori people, with the strong conviction that it would be good for all of New Zealand.

Sixteen years later, she she can say she's satisfied with her efforts. "Of course, you are never going to do enough. But I know that we have achieved things against the odds. There are other things that we haven't been able to change, and that's not for the want of trying."

The party was not left, right or centre. It had its own values and had given Maori the ability to speak for themselves, she said. What's left to be done is to sort out the country's constitutional arrangements. That was one of the Maori Party's conditions for supporting National after the 2008 election. She says it's moving slowly and no one seems to be excited about it.

"They will if they think Maori will get more than they should."

Whanau Ora is another legacy of Mrs Turia's, which she hopes Maori and Pacific people will use to become "the self-determining people we were born to be".

"If everybody practised whanau ora it would be transformative for families, communities and the country. The trouble is they think Whanau Ora is something Maori [she makes a face] - can't do that, can't support that."

Nonetheless, it had given Maori and Pacific people huge confidence.

"The big thing going forward will be growing leaders and growing leadership, and essentially building our capacity and capability within our family settings so that we can continue this work, even if government and policy changes."

She dislikes the word "poverty", saying it makes people feel bad about their situations. And there is no excuse for people going hungry when they can help themselves by gardening, fishing or hunting: "There's so much more we could be doing for ourselves."

She also hates the adversarial nature of parliamentary politics. "In many ways it's a false environment, and I dislike it. There are so many things that I think, if we could work together on this we could make the biggest difference for this country."

The Maori Party's coalition with National has surprised many, but she says it shows Maori can work with anyone. Mrs Turia has even managed to maintain respectful relationships with people like Peter Dunne and Rodney Hide.

Health-wise, her wairua (spirit) was revived after leaving the Labour Party. That spirit has stayed strong since, despite a work day that starts between 5.30-7.30am and ends around 11pm. Last year she had just three weekends off. She is often tired, and sometimes "absolutely knackered".

What she regrets most is missing tangi (funerals) on her home turf and not going to her granddaughter Piata's sporting and school events.

There are always people ringing and visiting, and there are also papers to read. She reads them herself and also has 11 staff, some of whom seek more information from experts.

At the moment she has four associate and two ministerial portfolios. It's a big workload and she needs her nine advisers. Disability has been one of her main focuses, along with Whanau Ora.

She and husband George have a house in Wellington and care for two children. One is 17-year-old Pakaitore, who was born during the first week of the 1995 occupation and named by the old people. This year he's been in the first rugby 15 at Wellington College. The other is 11-year-old Piata.

Once, aged around 5, Piata asked Mrs Turia who her real mother was. Her answer was to list all the things mothers do for their children, and ask Piata who did them for her. She was hoping the little girl would choose her. Instead she said, "My koro (old man)" - which Mrs Turia said was a true reflection of her husband's role.

She and George also have a house at Kaitoke, near Whanganui. She's not worried about having paroled sex offender Murray Wilson as a neighbour. "He has paid for what he has done and he needs to be kept an eye on, but I think people played politics with the issue."

But a steely glint enters her eye as she adds: "He would be very sorry if he turned up at my place and tried anything."

She's bound to have family in the area because her Ngati Apa hapu is planning a papakainga (settlement) in nearby Marangai. Plans for the village have been drawn up and family members will be building houses there in the next five years.

Mrs Turia's voice gets more lively as she talks about how the family shares food: one son milks a cow every day, another raises pigs, chickens and sheep, and George grows a big vegetable garden.

When her time in Parliament is over she may also want to look at what's happening at Te Oranganui, the iwi health authority she helped start in Whanganui.

And there will be 26 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren for her to be involved with. In the spirit of Whanau Ora, their business will be her business.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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