The right man for National at the time

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 09/04/2014
RETIRING: Tau Henare talks to reporters after tweeting he was leaving politics at the election.
GLEN SCANLON
RETIRING: Tau Henare talks to reporters after tweeting he was leaving politics at the election.

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OPINION: When Tau Henare first started turning up at National Party meetings in the early 2000s there would be a noticeable ripple go through the room.

That was back in the day when the heads gracing a National Party conference room were almost uniformly grey and the faces mostly white.

A former trade unionist and member of NZ First's "tight five" group of Maori MPs - famous for their dark suits, Dirty Dog sunglasses and their swagger - Henare was about as far removed from National's grassroots as you could get.

And National needed him as much as the former NZ First cabinet minister needed it.

After nine years in power and belatedly confronting the massive change brought about by the move from first-past-the-post to MMP politics, National was struggling for relevance and desperately aware its caucus failed the "looks like us" test with the rest of New Zealand.

Its only Maori MP was Georgina te Heuheu, though leader Bill English tried to recruit Hekia Parata that same year as part of his push to wake National up to the "browning" of New Zealand.

A decade on, the National caucus now looks very different and is far more representative of the rest of New Zealand.

National also owed Henare a debt of gratitude back then for propping up the Shipley government.

It would have fallen if he and a handful of NZ First ministers had walked away at the same time as the party's leader, Winston Peters.

But John Key made it clear yesterday he considered that debt well and truly paid.

The characteristics that first appealed - Henare's pugnaciousness, his colourful turn of phrase, and his credentials as a bona fide character - had already become a recipe for backbench restlessness after he had been passed over for promotion one too many times.

In one of those awkward political moments, Henare was at Key's shoulder when the prime minister was asked about his decision to retire.

Once he realised the most glowing tribute the PM could muster was that he was "colourful", Henare pulled a face and moved on.

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- The Dominion Post

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