The man in the middle

CHRIS FINLAYSON: Waspish and charming, bossy and vulnerable.
CHRIS FINLAYSON: Waspish and charming, bossy and vulnerable.

Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson now faces the greatest test of his career, following National's spectacular bust-up with Tuhoe and with a battle looming over the foreshore and seabed.

CHRIS FINLAYSON loves to play the toff, scattering Latin and French sentences like birdseed. He conspicuously lacks the common touch. The minister for the arts loves "the Bard" and Mozart, and will tell you so at length.

The opera lover is leading the charge on treaty rights, and has fallen out with his prime minister as a result. Finlayson hates the way politicians say they are "passionate" about things. But his passion for this is real. He was furious when Prime Minister John Key upended the deal he had been negotiating with Tuhoe.

Chris Finlayson at parliament, above, and with John Key at the Taranaki settlement.
Chris Finlayson at parliament, above, and with John Key at the Taranaki settlement.

Finlayson, 53, can be waspish and charming, bossy and vulnerable. Since he is gay as well as Catholic, he is an "odd fish", he once told a gay audience. He has no partner, and says he is celibate.

This singular man now finds himself in the middle of the vortex. Maori are furious over the collapse of the Tuhoe deal, and powerful forces in National think Finlayson has got much too friendly with the natives. Somehow he has to get the treaty process back on the road. And next month he must reveal how he will fix the foreshore and seabed issue, that other fissure between white and brown.

Who does he think he is? Superman?


Finlayson remains unknown to most voters. He is "shy", he told the Dominion Post after he was first elected as a National list MP in 2005. He does not give personal interviews (he declined to speak to the Sunday Star-Times). Some of his eccentricities, however, flaunt themselves.

Opening an exhibition of Monet and other artists at Te Papa last year, Finlayson gave a fair chunk of his speech in French. After all, he explained, the painters were French. "Tosser," murmured some in the audience. Finlayson also likes to quote Latin in his speeches – not just tags, but entire sentences. "He's always been pretentious," says a friend.

The politician won't see it that way, of course: speaking French and Latin is just celebrating his culture. But in any case, says the friend, "you can tell him he's being a wanker, he doesn't mind. But that won't make him change, either". People who think these displays of erudition are a sign of insecurity are wrong, he says: "It's just Fin." He has never lacked confidence.

A GOOD SETTLEMENT: Findlayson spent years fighting for Ngai Tahu against the government, pursuing its treaty claims through a bewildering series of court battles.
A GOOD SETTLEMENT: Findlayson spent years fighting for Ngai Tahu against the government, pursuing its treaty claims through a bewildering series of court battles.

At St Patrick's College in Wellington he shone at public speaking and debating – this is a politician's apprenticeship – and loved drama. He played The President in a political play called The Little People in his fourth-form year, 1971. He was head prefect in 1974, a post that is clearly important to him. Nearly 40 years on, the politician still includes it on his CV.

Christopher Francis Finlayson was in the top form but was only in the middle of the class. "He was a good but not brilliant scholar, and he worked incredibly hard," recalls a schoolfriend. "He was one step away from being a superswot." But he was never a nerd or a victim, and though "he never had the common touch", he was popular.

He was hopeless at sport, unlike his two brothers, one of whom is now a professional tennis coach in Germany. "But he would always try hard," says the schoolfriend. He would play the toff – "my dear fellow", "my good man" – and people would laugh at him.

And the toff is a warmer and less arrogant man than he might appear to outsiders. He has "a huge number of god-daughters and godsons, and he takes his duty as a godfather very seriously," a friend says. He is also a devoted son – his parents separated many years ago – and cares for his ailing father.

The minister for the arts puts his money where his mouth is. He sponsors players at the Symphony Orchestra, and each year he sponsors a play at Circa Theatre.

"We thought he would either become a politician or a priest," says a friend. Finlayson himself has said he got the political bug in 1973, during a visit to parliament where he and a friend had a long talk with former National leader Keith Holyoake. He joined National in 1974 and has since held nearly every party office except president.

When he stood for parliament in 2005 he announced he was gay. His friends were surprised. "We thought – nah," said one. "I think he's more asexual than gay." He "never ran around after girls at school. He would have liked to have been interested in girls, because he talked about how he would need a wife as a politician". He had some girlfriends at university "but they all fizzled out".

Finlayson told the Herald on Sunday that it was "easy" to reconcile his faith with his sexuality: "If you took the Bible literally, you wouldn't eat certain types of fish. We'd stone some people to death. I think that's part of the problem with Islam, they get carried away with literalism."

But others who know him say that Catholicism's traditional hostility to homosexuality has meant the issue "has caused him a lot of torment". Perhaps, suggested one friend, his solution has been to renounce sex altogether.

NOBODY CAN remember Finlayson taking any particular interest in Maori causes at school. He comes from the wealthy white suburb of Khandallah, although his family home was not in the flashest part of it. At Victoria University he continued the Eurocentric path of his education, studying Latin, French and law. However, during his lucrative 25-year-long career as a lawyer, Maori causes became more and more important.

He spent years fighting for Ngai Tahu against the government, pursuing its treaty claims through a bewildering series of court battles.

"I used to love going to the office in the morning when we were suing the Crown," Finlayson said in a speech last year.

"Ngai Tahu mastered the art of aggressive litigation, whether it was suing the Waitangi Tribunal and [National treaty negotiations minister] Doug Graham or the director-general of Conservation. It was take-no-prisoners and it resulted in a good settlement."

The signing of the treaty deal with Ngai Tahu in 1997, he said in his maiden speech in parliament, was the highlight of his legal career.

How could this white lawyer, with no obvious cross-cultural sympathies, get so hooked on the treaty? "Because he's a lawyer with a conscience," suggests Margaret Mutu, professor of Maori at Auckland University and the chief treaty claims negotiator for Ngati Kahu in the Far North.

"If you are a good lawyer looking at this stuff, you're horrified because there are so many breaches of law – law is broken all over the place. And a lawyer with a conscience will say, `Come on, fix this stuff'!"

Finlayson comes to treaty negotiations, then, not as a Pakeha trying to be Maori, but as a Pakeha lawyer trying to fix the law and salvage the honour of the Crown. Mutu, whose tribe and four others signed an agreement in principle over treaty claims in January, says Finlayson is a better qualified minister for treaty negotiations than any before, "and I've dealt with them all".

"There's a huge amount of goodwill and a fair amount of good understanding on Chris's part – but he's hamstrung by cabinet," Mutu told the Sunday Star-Times.

The National cabinet refused to accept some of the points that Labour's Michael Cullen had agreed with the tribe, "and that made things hard for Chris", she said.

Finlayson was "particularly good on the foreshore and seabed stuff – but he was overruled there, too". He understood the iwi argument that hapu had always had "mana whenua" over the foreshore and seabed, something far greater than ownership. The idea that Maori were the owners, however, was not politically sustainable and the government had come up with its proposal that the area should fall into the public domain. This was not acceptable to iwi leaders, she said.

Unlike most previous treaty ministers, Finlayson was not hidebound by bureaucrats or procedure. The bureaucrats "went berserk" when Ngati Kahu proposed to write the deed of settlement themselves – they were fed up with officials drafting settlements and "putting in all sorts of things we never talked about".

"The bureaucrats said, `No way can these people be allowed to write a deed of settlement.' Chris just shrugged his shoulders and said, `Let them do it.' That's a measure of the man."

Although cabinet had made life difficult for Finlayson, Mutu said, there had been nothing like the Tuhoe case, where it had overruled a deal hammered out by Finlayson and tribal negotiator Tamati Kruger.

"It takes a long time for a minister to build up credibility, and Chris had done some pretty good solid groundwork – and to have it tipped over like this, it undermines him," she said.

Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson says the previous National government's success with treaty settlements depended on prime minister Jim Bolger backing Doug Graham. But in this case, Key had undermined his minister and damaged his mana. Future Maori negotiators would now wonder whether Finlayson had the power to deal with them.

Auckland University of Technology history professor Paul Moon agrees. While no one could be sure what happened with Tuhoe, it appeared that the prime minister pulled the rug out from under Finlayson, which put the minister in an awkward position.

On the other side, of course, are all the National politicians who argue that restoring the Urewera National Park to Tuhoe would create an impossible precedent – other tribes who hadn't won national parks in their area would want one – and infuriate Pakeha voters. The same dilemmas will arise when Finlayson unveils his final proposals for the foreshore and seabed. Once again, the priest-politician finds himself in a vice between brown hopes and white fears. Can he talk his way out of it?


- Says being treaty negotiations minister "is the best job a person can have". In 18 months, he has signed six deeds of settlement with iwi, 14 agreements in principle, and seven terms of negotiation.

- Reached across political spectrum to hire treaty help, recruiting former Labour cabinet minister Paul Swain and former diplomat John Wood as Crown negotiators, and his hero and National predecessor, Sir Doug Graham, as a facilitator.

- Has boosted Waitangi Tribunal funding by $30 million over four years.

- As arts minister has cut Creative New Zealand's governing boards from four to one, set up a taskforce to investigate ways to encourage people to give more to the arts, and asked Sir Peter Jackson to review the film industry.

- First hit the headlines in 2006 after making a speech in which he likened then Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark to Lady Macbeth.

- Calls himself a liberal conservative and admires former National leader "Gentleman" Jack Marshall and former Foreign Affairs Minister Hugh Templeton.

- In 2006 criticised the Clark government's "abiding hostility to Christianity: anti-Christianity is to Labour Party members today what anti-Semitism was to the Nazis," he said in parliament.

- Originally published in the Sunday Star-Times May 30 2010