Peeni Henare has been at the forefront of the controversial Māori Health Authority. He reveals why it's so personal for him and tells Michael Neilson what it's like to continue one of Aotearoa's political dynasties.
Peeni Henare missed his parliamentary swearing-in in 2014. Instead, he was at his father's hospital bedside.
Erima Henare, a young 62, chair of the Māori Language Commission and revered figure throughout the country, had just suffered a massive heart attack.
Seven months later, soon after Erima Henare left a meeting in Parliament, he had another.
This time it was fatal.
"I remember the call while the House was sitting, that he'd collapsed and died, just after he had been in this very building," Henare tells the Herald from his ministerial office.
"The tissues are there for a reason. It's a painful reminder every day I come into this place. He was here the night he died."
His father never got to see him become a minister.
But it was that memory and knowledge that his father was just one of many Māori dying well before their time that has spurred Henare through his health reform work.
Henare is speaking to the Herald after a Budget delivered over $1 billion for Māori-focused initiatives – the majority for getting the Māori Health Authority under way and for Māori housing initiatives. Both are Henare's areas of ministerial responsibility.
Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson called Henare the "billion-dollar man" during the Māori caucus' post-Budget hui, crediting him for many of the gains.
Henare's entry into politics came with a bit of luck: his main rival for the Tamaki Makaurau seat in 2014 was broadcaster Shane Taurima, who withdrew after using TVNZ offices for party meetings.
But there was also something of an inevitability about it.
Henare's whānau is one of New Zealand's family political dynasties.
He follows the footsteps of his great-grandfather Taurekareka Henare (1878-1940), who represented the conservative Reform Party for 24 years, and his uncle Tau Henare, who represented New Zealand First, Mauri Pacific and the National Party over two nine-year stints.
Members of the Henare whānau have put in 46 years as politicians over the ages: making them the fifth-longest serving family in the country.
What makes Peeni Henare a bit different is that he is the first one to stand for Labour.
Henare said choosing Labour caused a "few conversations" in the whanau.
The farming-oriented Ngāti Hine had long been a "blue hapū", but Henare said for him it was about values and achieving the best outcomes for Māori.
In particular, he was focused on turning around the "terrible state" of Māori housing and healthcare.
After Labour's massive election result in 2020, Henare made no secret of his wish to be health minister – a high ambition for a then relatively-inexperienced Minister.
It was instead given to Andrew Little, but Henare was made an associate minister, in charge of Maori health. Getting the Māori Health Authority over the line was his proudest moment so far, he said.
"I'll never forget the Prime Minister saying to me after the election, 'Well, you have got a very short window to get the work done'.
"So I did not have much of a break over summer.
"Growing up in a health system that has so poorly served our people, the authority is about reclaiming Māori health. For me it is one of those moments, I'll always remember where I was on April 21, 2021."
Defence also holds a special place for Henare. As Minister he points to the parallels with his koro, the late Sir James Henare, having led the Māori Battalion at the end of World War II and encouraged young Māori to enlist.
Henare says Sir James was one of the greatest influences on his life.
Sir James, a farmer and iwi leader, was a passionate advocate of Māori rights, culture, and te reo, founding kohanga reo, but also was a strong believer in the bi-cultural foundations of Aotearoa.
"He talked of a bicultural New Zealand foundation for a multicultural future. He sounded like an Englishman, spoke the Queen's English, but was a renowned Māori orator.
"He was clear to us, you had to walk in both worlds."
As a mainstream Labour politician, Henare sometimes has to bear the brunt of Māori dissatisfaction.
In 2019 he and Jackson - both with strong Māngere roots – arrived at Ihumātao days after the protests erupted and the occupation swelled.
The anger at what was seen as a betrayal by the Government for allowing the planned housing development on the site to go ahead was visceral.
When Jackson spoke, he matched fire with fire.
But Henare, his face rarely shifted from a stern steer. He was listening.
When he responded - in te reo Māori - the emotion and passion was raw, and people listened.
It is known now the Government would have progressed a deal much quicker if not for NZ First blocking it.
Henare and his Māori caucus colleagues instead had to put up with accusations of betraying their Māori roots for the Crown, in the knowledge a deal was waiting in the wings.
It's a tightrope many mainstream Māori politicians have to walk, appeasing te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā, but one Henare appears to walk with ease.
"I think that's one of my greatest strengths, being able to straddle both worlds, to take criticism on marae and respond in te reo, to bear the heat of the fire but to be comfortable there where the two worlds meet."
That ability is also highlighted by those who have watched Henare grow into his role.
Māori political commentator and ex-Labour campaign manager Shane Te Pou was part of the team who first selected him.
Te Pou said he had been impressed by Henare's rise through the party ranks, becoming a minister first in 2017 of Whānau Ora and then getting bigger portfolios after 2020.
"He is very well respected, has the ear of the Prime Minister and is a close confidante of hers, even assisting with her reo."
His values were "quite clearly formed living, breathing te ao Māori".
"He was brought up speaking the language. His father and mother were fluent, not many Māori MPs have lived and breathed it to the extent Peeni has."
Henare, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine, grew up in a household steeped in Māori and mainstream politics.
A twin, he and his four siblings grew up mostly in Northland. However, they moved all around the country for his father's work with the Department of Māori Affairs.
There was even a stint in Los Angeles, where visitors included his aunty, former National MP Hekia Parata, then a diplomat, and then prime minister David Lange.
By the time he got to Whangārei Boys High School he and his twin brother had attended 14 schools. He attended kohanga reo, part of the first cohort, and they spoke only te reo at home.
"People say it's hard to learn when you are so unsettled, moving around, but we had education at home, histories, culture and we only spoke te reo."
Henare describes himself as a "good student", with good grades, and a cultural and sporting leader.
When Henare was 16 his partner at the time became pregnant, and they had a son together.
It was a turning point for Henare.
"It forced me to get a bit of perspective. My focus went from making the First XV to what I could do to support my kid and family."
He almost left school but for supportive teachers and whānau. The following year he was head boy.
He still has a good relationship with his son and the mother.
Henare now also has two daughters, aged 8 and 9, through his first and only wife. They split shortly after he entered Parliament and he now has a new partner.
After high school Henare studied law, politics and te reo at the University of Auckland. He disliked law, and graduated with a BA.
Before entering Parliament Henare worked with his iwi, and even did a spot of sports commentating, the highlight being the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final in te reo.
Over his seven years in Parliament, Henare, 41, said he had "matured a lot".
Henare's colleagues – and opponents – described his style as "laid-back".
Ministerial colleague, older second cousin and former form 2 at Bay of Islands Intermediate School teacher Kelvin Davis said he had a similar personality age 12: "Laid-back, but with an ability in te reo and culture that was second to none."
Davis speaks often about te arawhiti, the bridge, between the Māori and Pākehā worlds.
"Peeni is a perfect example. He is as at home in Parliament as he is at home on the marae."
John Tamihere, a former Labour minister and Henare's recent Māori Party opponent in Tāmaki Makaurau, said Henare's relaxed style was his strength, and his weakness.
"He's no firebrand politician. You might walk away from a hui none the wiser but he has a warm personality."
Tamihere supported Henare in his 2014 and 2017 campaigns because of his friendship with Erima Henare.
"Peeni comes from pedigree, there were high expectations for him. His father and grandfather were some of the most high-achieving New Zealanders of their era."
There are still high expectations from some.
Shane Te Pou sees even higher rungs for Henare – very high rungs indeed.
"I think he is a real possibility to be a prime minister. He's had no massive missteps, handled his portfolios well, and has time on his side."
Henare himself won't be drawn into musing on his future ambition.
"My priority at the moment is to use my current position as the MP of Tamaki Makaurau and Minister to serve my people – that is the goal now."