Book review: Crossing the Floor, the Story of Tariana Turia

Tariana Turia's story doesn't just belong to the politician, as biographer Helen Leahy realises.
NICK REED/FAIRFAX NZ

Tariana Turia's story doesn't just belong to the politician, as biographer Helen Leahy realises.

Crossing the Floor: the Story of Tariana Turia
Helen Leahy
Huia Publishers, $44.99
Reviewed by Morgan Godfery

It sometimes seems as if written biographies are unfit for Maori stories, the book's form rarely matches the subject's cultural reality.

After all, how is one meant to manage the tension between the biography's individualism and linear narrative with the need to tell what is, in many cases, a communal and ancestral story?

For Helen Leahy, the author of Crossing the Floor: the Story of Tariana Turia, the tension between the individual and the communal, the linear and the non-linear, is managed by handing the story to its community. The book switches from Leahy's voice to Turia's, from time to time it even shifts to a whanau member or friend.

It's a structural acknowledgement that "the story of Tariana Turia" doesn't just belong to the politician herself but to the ancestors, whanau, friends and land that shaped her.

Yet the land doesn't have a literary voice - instead it falls to Turia to speak for it. That seems particularly fitting for someone whose political career is defined by a bold stand against her own government's Foreshore and Seabed Act.

The act, a shameless attempt to "nationalise" potential Maori customary land, plunged Maori relations with the Labour Party to their lowest point since the departure of Te Tai Tokerau MP Matiu Rata in the 1970s. After pressure from her colleagues to avoid or abstain at the bill's third reading, Turia backed her principles and voted against it. 

It goes without saying that the period is filled with political trauma – Turia was variously accused of leading a mob of "haters and wreckers" - yet it wasn't until after this moment that Turia came into her own as a politician and a leader.

After resigning from the government and triggering a by-election in her Te Tai Hauauru seat in 2004, Turia was returned with 94 per cent of the vote. This time she returned as the leader of the Maori Party, a party she would lead into government with National at the 2008 and 2011 elections. It was decision she wouldn't come to regret, but it tore the party apart.

Even so, Turia was beginning to earn the quiet respect of many New Zealanders. It must have been a dramatic shift going from a "hater and wrecker"to becoming someone nicknamed "the mother of the nation".

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The latter title seems particularly fitting as it was Turia's apparent maternal trait that influenced her signature policy achievement, Whanau Ora, a policy initiative that came under heavy fire.

Much of the criticism was justified – the policy doesn't deal with causes, it's merely remedial – yet it was another excellent example of Turia subverting society's expectation of individualism and replacing it with Maori realities.

Perhaps that's her real legacy.

 - Stuff

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