At home in the House or on the farm

MR SPEAKER: Surgeon and Speaker of the House Sir Peter Tapsell.
Fairfax NZ
MR SPEAKER: Surgeon and Speaker of the House Sir Peter Tapsell.

Parliament's first Maori Speaker, Sir Peter Tapsell, was as equally at ease mustering sheep on his Ruatoria farm as he was ordering miscreant MPs from the House.

NZ First leader Winston Peters sometimes bore the brunt of being expelled.

The pair would often meet later over a cup of tea, but the episodes were never discussed.

Sir Peter won the Eastern Maori seat for Labour in 1981 after two previous attempts in the general seat of Rotorua.

Peter Wilfred Tapsell was born in Rotorua and educated at Rotorua Boys' High School before heading to Otago University to study medicine. He was also a skilful rugby player for Bay of Plenty, and was New Zealand Maori vice-captain in 1954.

After qualifying at Otago, he won a scholarship for three years of post-graduate study in England. He returned in 1961 to become the first resident orthopaedic surgeon at Rotorua Hospital – a position he held for 20 years. He was the only Maori to be a fellow of both the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

He was made an MBE for services to medicine and Maori in 1968.

In politics, Sir Peter remained an MP for five terms holding the internal affairs, arts, police, civil defence, science and forestry portfolios.

He was Speaker from 1993 to 1996, an unusual appointment, as it was a National government.

Despite having held a 6666 majority, Sir Peter was dumped in the 1996 election by the new Te Tai Rawhiti electorate and replaced by Tuariki Delamere as NZ First swept all five Maori seats. The sudden expulsion from the "parliamentary club" was unexpected and a huge shock.

Following the election loss he moved as far from politics as he could, returning to his remote 800-hectare sheep and cattle farm near Ruatoria on the East Coast. He enjoyed the long hours, freedom – his nearest neighbour was several kilometres away – and independence and resourcefulness of farming. An expert shot and keen hunter, Sir Peter was not shy about taking a verbal shot at Maori or European.

He called for the Maori language to become a core subject in schools and a focus on prime-time television. Te reo was paramount to Maori culture, but it would be naive to consider the majority of Maori would speak it on an everyday basis, he said.

He believed all New Zealanders should be encouraged to understand Maori but he never supported a separate Maori language television channel.

He saw himself fortunate to have grown up in a poor Maori village, which steadfastly kept to traditional customs and disciplines, and to become a surgeon and Speaker.

Maori had made considerable material progress, but had lost in spiritual terms, he once said.

He remained concerned that a large proportion of Maori were dependent on a benefit and spoke of the "huge tide" of uneducated and unskilled Maori who could not read or write.

Maori culture and social discipline had been undermined and destroyed by a European culture that was a poor substitute.

Tragedy struck Sir Peter's family in 1991 when his daughter killed his mother. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and Sir Peter called for changes in the Mental Health Act and the Privacy Act to allow more information sharing.

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