OPINION: As preparations begin for the funeral of former Maori affairs minister Parekura Horomia, former Dominion Post political editor Nick Venter recalls his finest hour.
It was the winter of 2003 and Maoridom was in a ferment. Almost 1000 Maori had travelled to a hui at Paeroa's Ngahutoitoi Marae to protest against the Labour-led government's plans to prevent Maori laying claim to the foreshore and seabed.
Those attending were out for blood - the government's and that of Labour's Maori MPs who had been swept along like flotsam in Labour's panic to change the law.
But first came the ceremonial welcome. Several people spoke, then Parekura Horomia rose to his feet. Heads craned forward in the soft morning sunshine. Mr Horomia been under siege in Parliament over the government's abandoned "closing the gaps strategy" and his handling of a troublesome portfolio. As he became flustered, his answers became ever more convoluted until eventually someone coined the phrase "parekuraisms" to describe incomprehensible political verbiage. There was talk that then prime minister Helen Clark was thinking of putting him out of his misery.
There was talk even then, too, about his health. He was grossly overweight and his problems were exacerbated by an enlarged heart and chronic asthma.
But all the talk about his political future ceased that day on the marae. Even before he rose to his feet it was apparent that the former shearer, printer and self-confessed brawler, a fish out of water in Parliament's debating chamber, was in his element on the marae.
Warned by one speaker that Maoridom would sort out Labour's Maori MPs if they did not sort out the government, he laughingly offered to let the speaker handle the issue. The crowd laughed with him.
When it came his turn, he shrugged out of his jacket, shuffled his feet to get the blood moving and then launched into a passionate address in te reo. Marching up and down, he ticked off on his fingers the lessons he had been taught by his grandparents, patted his chest, drew circles in the air and struck war-like poses.
An onlooker helpfully provided translation. When he said he and his fellow Maori MPs had not come to the hui "hiding under the petticoats of the government" the crowd roared with laughter. When he said he was attending as a Maori first and a minister second they murmured their appreciation.
The biggest cheer came when he danced a jig as he moved forward to lay his contribution towards the cost of the hui in front of the marae. "It's not government money," he said.
That should have been the end of the matter, but then a remarkable thing happened. Iwi representatives moved forward to offer their koha but, instead of placing it on the ground as tradition dictates, they instead handed it to Mr Horomia to do so on their behalf.
It was an extraordinary show of support for a man who just minutes before they had been looking forward to verbally dismembering. Veteran activist Titewhai Harawira, no friend of the Labour government, or any other government for that matter, said she had never seen anything like it.
Mr Horomia's performance did not change his government's policy on the foreshore and seabed, it did not prevent the formation of the Maori Party and it did not save the jobs of all his Maori colleagues in the Labour Party. Several lost their seats at the following election. But never again was there speculation about his fitness to serve as Maori affairs minister. The job was his as long as Labour remained in office and as long as he wanted it.
And never again did he appear so flustered in Parliament. He knew he had the support of Maoridom and so did every politician on the Opposition benches.
Mr Horomia could be frustrating both to deal with and work for. He had a flexible notion of time. But he was always good-humoured, always even-tempered and always tried to do his best for those who had elected him and the wider New Zealand community.
Prime Minister John Key said yesterday he never heard him say a "nasty or horrible thing".
Neither did anyone else.
- The Dominion Post
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