'Kia ora lady' still an agent for change

17:00, Jul 19 2013
Naida Glavish
BIG DREAMS: Naida Glavish says if the Maori Party quit the coalition with National, 'we would go back into Opposition and achieve nothing'.

Don't tell Naida Glavish that she and her party are stooges of National. She was battling National years ago.

In 1984, she was a telephone operator for the Post Office and her supervisor told her to stop using the greeting "kia ora". The reason? It was a "non-standard expression".

National Cabinet minister and Postmaster-General Rob Talbot backed the ban. A large number of people did not understand the meaning of kia ora, he told The Dominion.

Large Polynesian groups in Auckland might "immediately ask why they cannot have their own national greeting", he said. "If you start breaking the line with one greeting, where do you finish?"

Mrs Glavish laughs about it now, and is modest.

"I began the battle," she says, "but in actual fact I have to say it was the country who won the war."


Airline pilots started greeting passengers with "kia ora", she recalls. People flooded the Post Office switchboards, insisting they only wanted to talk to the kia ora lady.

Overseas toll operators used their indigenous greetings when calling New Zealand. "Aloha," said a woman from Hawaii. Mrs Glavish had sparked an international argument.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, returning from overseas as the battle was raging, ended the conflict and overruled his minister.

He said he couldn't get excited about a woman who wanted to say kia ora.

"Now if she went all Australian and said ‘Gidday', then I'd get a bit grizzly."

After the U-turn, Mr Talbot "wrote to me and thanked me for the suggestion for the use of kia ora", says Mrs Glavish, laughing again.

She has never been anti-National, she says, although she has never voted for the party. National, after all, ended up supporting the use of kia ora.

"There has been some propaganda saying that the Maori Party sits under National. Well, it does not."

STAYING STAUNCH Two Pakeha, "complete strangers", came up to her and congratulated her on becoming president of the Maori Party.

She has received congratulatory texts from Pakeha businessmen.

There is a "real excitement" about the party since its annual general meeting last week, where MP Te Ururoa Flavell replaced Pita Sharples as co-leader and Mrs Glavish replaced retiring president Pem Bird.

Critics had pointed to the party's third place in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election, but that was before the meeting.

"I believe that the confidence has shifted considerably," she says.

Mana Party MP Hone Harawira, who split from the Maori Party and now calls it a stooge of the National Government, says the membership "has dropped through the floor".

Mrs Glavish says she doesn't know the figures, although "I know it's higher than Peter Dunne's".

However, she concedes membership "is not where we would like it to be, and that's what we will be working on".

Isn't the party's main problem that most Maori voters just don't like National? Doesn't that explain why support for the Maori Party has plummeted?

"That was the case before Labour sold the seabed and foreshore," she says.

The Maori Party's deal with National over the seabed and foreshore had changed Maori voters' allegiances.

But hasn't the party's support actually fallen since then?

"It's not in the interest of the party," she replies, "for me to look backwards."

Mrs Glavish repeats the party line over a possible deal or merger with Mr Harawira's Mana Party, saying there are "issues of trust".

The Maori Party's kaupapa is to be the swing party, willing to deal with either National or Labour, to win benefits for Maori.

"We are the queen-makers," she says with a laugh, before correcting herself.

"That's what we'd like to be. That feels great, saying it."

Everybody's allowed to dream, she jokes.

Mrs Glavish knows Mr Harawira well - they are both from the North - and says there are no hard feelings personally.

"He's like a bro. Oh yes, sure, he's part of the whanau."

She has to keep the bro separate from the politician "and he would understand that absolutely".

Labour MP Shane Jones, another Northerner she knows well and has often worked with, is also a bro.

"She is someone I respect," he says.

He has known her for 30 years and they have worked together on the Fisheries Commission. He regards her as "a tougher character than Pita Sharples".

BEING MAORI Naida Glavish was fluent in Maori and Croatian when she started school, but she didn't speak English.

She was raised in Kaipara, "bouncing across the road" between her Maori and Croatian grandmothers.

"I was born in the front seat of my father's Studebaker," she says.

Her Croatian dad, who fathered nine children with four different women - "We all get on very well" - died in May this year, aged 101.

"There are some concerns, of course," says the 65-year-old, "that I have the longevity gene and they're going to have to put up with me for another few decades."

She was expelled from Kaipara High School when she was 12.

"I wrote a nasty note to a mate about our principal because he kept me in," she explains, "and somehow the note landed on the desk of the principal.

"And he called me out and he said to me, ‘Naida Glavish, are you game enough to say to my face what you're game enough to write about me?'

"And I said to him, ‘Yes sir.' ‘Go on then,' he said. And so I said what I'd written."

It was along the lines, she remembers, of "Mr So-and-So is a bald-headed something something."

The principal said: "Get out of my school right now." So Naida walked home and told her mother.

She was puzzled about the expulsion, she says. "He told me to say it and so I said it. He just wanted an excuse to kick me out."

The principal of Kaipara High didn't want a "smart Maori" in his school, she reckons. She had scored 100 per cent in all her exams in standard 6, which should have put her straight into the A stream at college. Instead, she was put in the C stream - one up from D, where most of the Maori kids went "and where most of my relatives were".

There's no doubt, she believes, that this was racism at work, "but at that time I didn't know what racism was".

"But I certainly learned, and I learned kind of on my feet. I swore then that that would not happen to my children and my grandchildren. Oh yeah."

Mrs Glavish had a "chequered career" at high school in Takapuna and Northcote.

Her own Maori culture was recognised "not at all, not at all".

What saved her was sport. "I was a keen netball player."

She left school at 17 without qualifications - she would pick them up later - and worked in a sewing factory, which she loved.

"We didn't have a hell of a lot of money, but I believe I was rich in language and rich in love. I was loved unconditionally. I was probably a very spoilt brat."

For her first six months, "every pay was [spent on] a pair of shoes".

She married at 17 and had five children "one after the other". It was as Naida Povey, her married name, that she became famous as the kia ora lady.

TIMES HAVE CHANGED Things have changed for the better, she says.

"In the days [when] I was expelled from school, there was no way any Maori Party would have been sitting next to any National government. I mean, we've come a long way."

However, there is still plenty to do. She would like to see particular programmes to help the "hard-to-teach students" like the young Naida Glavish.

Instead, these kids still face "a stand-down, as they call it. A stand-down is a life sentence to a kid."

She became a teacher of Maori after finishing at the Post Office, turning her classroom at Henderson High School into a marae with mattresses rather than desks, and collaborating with her pupils to write a play in Maori.

As a parent, she joined school committees and the Maori Women's Welfare league. "I joined in a whole lot of committees to be in where decisions and power sat."

The former telephone operator was moving up in the world. After teaching, her kuia asked her to go into the health sector, where she has spent more than 20 years as a senior Maori adviser to Auckland health boards.

Now she is president of a party in coalition, "the only indigenous party in the world that is sitting with a government".

It's a paradox that this lifelong battler for Maori now holds high office in a party that the critics say has sold Maori out.

She laughs the criticism away and repeats the party line. "We have given our word [to National] and our word is our bond and we will see it through."

If the party quit the coalition, it would leave a position of power that had brought benefits for Maori.

"We would go back into opposition and achieve nothing."

The Maori Party will "keep the candle of hope glowing", she says.

The debate over the party still rages, but some of her victories endure.

In 2012, not long before he died, the long-retired Mr Talbot phoned Mrs Glavish. "It was a wonderful conversation we had," she says, "about both of us being the agent for change for the acceptance of te reo Maori in this country" - even if the politician had actually opposed it at the time.

The Dominion Post