Cultural leader's political legacy remains uncertain
What sort of cruel irony would force Pita Sharples to announce in Maori Language Week that he was quitting as co- leader of the Maori Party?
It was his role in the renaissance of Maori culture that catapulted him on to the national scene and ultimately into Parliament as co-leader of the party that was formed in 2004.
For many Pakeha the first memory of him may be as the leader of the young kapa haka group he had trained for the ceremony at the 1990 Commonwealth Games.
But political commentator Rawiri Taonui, indigenous studies adjunct professor at Auckland University of Technology, sets his contribution in a context going back to the 1970s.
"He's one of a declining number of Maori leaders who is a full embodiment of the Maori renaissance going back to the 1970s and 1980s, helping establish the first kohanga reo, the first kura kaupapa at Hoani Waititi, getting urban marae up and running and contributing to the development of Maori tertiary education and the renaissance of kapa haka."
He said Dr Sharples was at the cutting edge of the debate on the foreshore and seabed and of the development of an independent Maori voice in Parliament and of local body Maori representation.
"It has been a huge and significant contribution."
Prime Minister John Key said Dr Sharples, who turns 72 next month, had been an "effective and efficient" minister whom he had enjoyed working with. But both Mr Key and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said Dr Sharples had made the right decision to step aside.
Rival Labour list MP Shane Jones, who is lining up to take Dr Sharples' Tamaki Makaurau seat, also gave credit to Dr Sharples' cultural achievement, but he was less flattering about his political legacy.
"He's not been a strong or decisive figure in his parliamentary leadership. He was always a figure of the cultural renaissance and that's incredibly important; no-one can take that away from him. But in terms of a parliamentary scrapper or a beacon for a brighter set of policies through Parliament, Dr Sharples has probably been one of the weakest Maori ministers that we've had, certainly in my lifetime."
Dr Taonui could not disagree more.
"History will look back at Pita Sharples as one of the finest Maori politicians of this generation."
He had tried to address every issue including criminal justice and the health system. "I think actually he has been one of the best [Maori affairs ministers] and probably the best in the last four years."
His other big achievement was helping win in Parliament mainstream acceptance of kaupapa Maori "in a more relaxed and open atmosphere than at any time in our history".
Not for him "white motherf......" outbursts and the occasional angry rhetoric of Mana leader Hone Harawira.
It was his inclusive style, honed at the Race Relations Office and as an expert in linguistics and anthropology, that helped ensure there was no backlash from Government supporters against the deal between National and the Maori Party after 2008.
But it was that accommodation with National - as well as the revised, but not radically altered, foreshore and seabed law, and the Maori Party's alignment with corporate and iwi interests - that sowed the seeds of the split with the younger Left-wing group around Mr Harawira.
Dr Taonui said Dr Sharples' decision to step aside yesterday might be seen as "surrender and failure" at the expense of his big-picture achievements.
"It's sad news and I'm not sure it is the right decision for the party but I can see where they are going."
His resignation, Mrs Turia's impending exit, the likely failure of the Maori option to deliver an eighth Maori seat and the outcome of the Ikaroa- Rawhiti by-election represented a turning point for an independent Maori voice in Parliament.
"It could be for the good, or could be the end of it."
Dr Sharples was born in 1941 at Waipawa, Hawke's Bay.
He is married with five children and six mokopuna. His iwi affiliations are Ngati Kahungunu, Ngai Te Kikiri o te Rangi and Ngati Pahauwera.
He studied geography, linguistics and anthropology at Auckland University and gained a PhD and a diploma in teaching.
His career included stints as chief executive in the Office of the Race Relations Conciliator, the director of culture at Maori Affairs and the director of Maori programmes at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and at the Hoani Waititi marae.
He was the professor of education at the University of Auckland and a member of the Waitangi Tribunal as well as inaugural chairman of Te Roopu Whaiti, the Maori Education Authority.
He has won many kapa haka awards and represented New Zealand on many international bodies.
He has been co-leader of the Maori Party since 2004 and Maori affairs minister since 2008.
The Dominion Post