It's a family affair

19:08, Jul 20 2013
Rino Tirikatane
Rino Tirikatane has been the Labour MP for Te Tai Tonga since November 2011.

'I 'll just put on my kryptonite," says Rino Tirikatene as the photographer sets up.

The kryptonite is a beautiful hunk of pounamu on a cord that Tirikatene carries with him. He lifts his collar and puts it around his neck.

"My uncle gave it to me," he says. "He's very steeped in the spiritual side of things on the West Coast. Every time he goes over there, he fishes up amazing pounamu. Prior to me going out on the campaign, he says, 'We're from there, you'd better wear some'."

Rino Tirikatane is a big, friendly guy. Slightly shy, maybe. Not at all entitled. He has been the Labour MP for Te Tai Tonga since November 2011. It was a rare thing: Labour won an electorate seat back.

Readers with a sense of history might experience deja vu: The Tirikatene name is deeply connected with Labour politics in the south. Sir Eruera Tirikatene was MP for Southern Maori from 1932 until his death in 1967. At that point, his daughter, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, took over, representing Southern Maori until 1996.

These are long stretches of history. A couple of weeks ago, Tirikatene was at a function marking 145 years of the Maori seats. He realised that his family has been in Parliament for 65 of those years.


People naturally assume it's a dynasty, but that isn't how it looks to him. Better to see it as "a legacy of service, from my grandfather's time and my aunt, to other family members, and now me".

Politics wasn't a direction that he was specifically expected or encouraged to take. He wasn't picked and groomed for the role, Dalai Lama-style.

"You absorb those things as you grow up," he says. "You don't really know what your calling will be. I didn't expect to be on this path, but when people come into Parliament, it's good to have had a career, a family, a broad understanding of how the world works. I was thrust into it at a very young age when my father passed away and I'm glad that didn't work out."

That was in 1996, an apocalyptic year for Maori politics. It was the first MMP election; NZ First took all five Maori seats. Tirikatene- Sullivan was tipped out of the newly named Te Tai Tonga by former All Black Tu Wyllie, who held it for just one term.

In the North Island, Tirikatene's father, Te Rino Tirikatene, ran for Labour in the seat of Te Puku o Whenua, but he died during the campaign, aged just 55. The Tuwharetoa iwi approached his widow and asked if the son would stand. Was that an offer he couldn't refuse?

"There is a sense of whakapapa and service that flows through Maori society. Rangatira, families with stories. That is one element that is part of you."

In the end, NZ First's Rana Waitai won in Te Puku o Whenua, also lasted just one term, and the electorate was absorbed into Ikaroa-Rawhiti.

In hindsight, defeat was a relief because 23 "was way too young to be trying to go into politics". By then he was already a commercial lawyer. He worked for Simpson Grierson. Later, he worked for Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and the Federation of Maori Authorities at the interface of Maori culture and business.

When he delivered his maiden speech in Parliament in 2012, he positioned himself in a long line: His grandfather, his aunt, now him. That history also described economic and social progress, "the steady growth of a Maori middle class".

That is a relatively untold story, but there remains much to be done. He spoke of "the eagerness of media to capitalise on Maori failures and ignore our successes". He said that "our people are not helped by being constantly framed as a problem to be fixed, or a growing climate of opinion that positions inequality as a signal of market success rather than market failure".

His speech covered history at the macro level, rather than personal reminiscences. So one wonders, what are his memories of his aunt, Whetu Tirikatene- Sullivan?

He thinks immediately of her bearing, style and panache.

"She was a real lady. In those days, they showed decorum as members of Parliament, a far cry from the Hone Harawira approach. She was a very Maori woman, we were a very Maori whanau. She used to love coming around, hoeing into a feed of muttonbirds. She was very close to my father. I was close to her children, my cousins. We grew up together.

"My dad had a shot at politics, but was unlucky. When I look back at my aunt, she had many skills. She was very bright and always had a class about her."

Parekura Horomia approached him the next time. He said yes.

Of course the Tirikatene name was an asset during the 2011 campaign. "It was better than Shane Jones, I guess!"

But seriously, his name is his name. More than anything, "I wanted to make sure that I won and was able to experience victory, having been on the other side of the fence".

It was Labour's worst result in decades.

"Given the context of that election, and the result Labour had, I'm proud of going against the flow and winning a seat back."

Generally, the predictions had the Maori Party's Rahui Katene holding it.

"The political commentators always like to hype things up. Just look at the recent Ikaroa-Rawhiti race. They play up the underdogs. They play up Maori identity politics. Or they play up a poll. You are up against that as a major party."

As with the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by- election, was there a sense that predictions were made by bloggers and commentators in Auckland or Wellington with little knowledge of Maori communities?

"Absolutely. That's where the predictions came from. People who weren't in the electorate. People who had never been down to Southland or Oamaru. They were looking at it from an Auckland- centric or Wellington-centric point of view, but they like to create a bit of drama, I guess."

The electorate is vast. All of the South Island, plus Stewart Island and the Chathams, and a bit of Wellington. It may get even larger in 2014, given the post-earthquake population shifts.

"It's a great honour because I can travel anywhere in the South Island and it's my patch. When you break it down and work out your modus operandi, it become manageable. It was way bigger in my aunt's and grandfather's day. It went all the way up to Wairoa and Rangitikei, so it took in Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay. It was a different era, too. They didn't have Facebook or the internet.

"The way that I am approaching my role is learning from what they did in those days. I learnt a lot from Parekura. In the Maori electorates, it is very much about being seen. Being on the marae, at the hui, paying respects at the tangi, going to as many Maori events as possible. That's the way they did it in the old days and that's what I'm going to carry on doing."

In some ways, Ikaroa-Rawhiti, which stretches up the east side of the North Island, is harder to cover "because you can't fly into Ruatoria or further up". There's more of the exhausting driving.

After Horomia's death, tributes spoke of his on-the-ground effectiveness and personal connections. He "went from house to house, aunty to aunty, nanny to nanny", as long-time friend Ngahiwi Tomoana told Radio NZ.

This mattered more than parliamentary ability. It was a way of working that was invisible to the vast majority of New Zealanders.

"Indeed," Tirikatene says. "It was a beautiful tangi, and to see all of Maoridom there, and from the prime minister to the speaker of the house to Silver Ferns and All Blacks, showed the mana of the man. It was also good for our fellow parliamentarians to see that this is how Maori MPs work.

"You might think, 'What's he doing, we never see him' or 'He doesn't come to whatever meeting', but we do things in our own way. We have to. He was a shining example of a great modern-day Maori parliamentarian. So I'm trying to do the same."

From a Maori perspective, what is the difference between the south and the north?

In the South Island, we have not seen the strong te reo revival you find in Tuhoe areas and parts of the far North, "but we are looking at rebuilding it", Tirikatene says.

"That's an exciting thing I see with the new generation. Good bilingual speakers. We have an abundance of culture in other areas. Whether it's going eeling or muttonbirding. But the issues of poverty, everyday trials of normal whanau, are the same here as they are around the rest of the country."

As ever, Maori issues tend to go beneath the mainstream media's radar. Is it widely known that Treaty of Waitangi settlements for the entire South Island have been completed? Possibly not.

"We've just had a first reading of the Te Tau Ihu Bill - that's the eight iwi at the top of the south. We're doing the last parliamentary phase of those settlements. It's a great time to be the member of Parliament and be able to usher through those historic settlements. The whole of the South Island will benefit."

This has been a slow process. Again, Tirikatene can look back to his aunt's era: She was in the Labour Cabinet with Matiu Rata during the creation of the Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1975. Earlier still, recognition of the Treaty was identified as important in his grandfather's maiden speech.

In the long decades since, Maori politics has become a highly contested area. There were three serious players in the race for Ikaroa-Rawhiti. No, four - "You can't discount the Greens".

Tirikatane suspects that Maori quickly grasped the potential of MMP.

"We're smart people. We could see ways to be strategic with our two votes. Maori picked up on that earlier than everyone else. Just because you're an incumbent, you can't take anything for granted."

In 2011, the Maori Party was knocked back in the south. More recently, it came third in Ikaroa- Rawhiti. Tirikatene believes it is a spent force.

"I don't deal too much in Maori Party circles, but from what I see they don't have a strong organisation or infrastructure. But having said that, I don't want to rev them up. With their two leaders outgoing and the troubles they've had, I don't think they can stem their decline in support. I landed a big blow on them by taking them down from four seats to three.

"I strongly believe that to really make changes for our people, you have to be in government and be the lead party in that government. To have a seat at the table, to tinker around, is not enough."

This week, political scientist Bryce Edwards predicted that Labour would win five Maori seats in 2014 and Mana would take the remaining two.

"I think he's way off," Tirikatene says. "It's interesting, all these commentators. Willie Jackson goes on Marae Investigates every week and without fail, he puts the boot into us. Those commentators have their own slants. I think Labour has a really good shot at winning them all."

Even beating Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau?

"Yes. I think Kelvin [Davis] pushed him quite close."

Tirikatene also looks after a "buddy electorate", Te Tai Hauauru, on the west coast of the North Island. Tariana Turia holds it, but she's standing down in 2014.

There has been talk of a Labour- Mana deal to kill off the Maori Party in 2014. That could be a fantasy as well.

"[Hone] said he has had discussions with Labour. If he has been talking to somebody, it's definitely not the Maori MPs. I don't see that happening. We respect each other and work with each other, but at election time we go about our business."

Speaking of fantasy and reality, no conversation about Labour can ignore leadership woes and real or imagined coups. A two-word question: David Shearer?

"David has my full support. I really admire him. He does a lot of work with the Maori community. Everything that I ask him to support or attend, he's there.

"It's the fact that he was at the Ratana temple service, came to this particular turangawaewae commemoration, or other events that were important to them. Not only once, but many times. He's doing a great job."

In March, Left-wing blog the Standard identified three factions in Labour. "The Right", led by Shearer. "The Left," led by David Cunliffe. And "The Careerist Left," headed by Grant Robertson. The blog claimed most of the Labour caucus' women and Maori were in the Cunliffe camp - including Tirikatene.

"That's definitely not correct.

"But we're a broad church. There are people who are very much Auckland- centric versus 'chainsaw' Damien O'Connor and myself, holding up the south."

Labour's problem, which will never be solved no matter who leads it, is that it covers a loose coalition of unions, Maori, urban liberals and identity politics. These interests do not necessarily overlap.

"It does pose its challenges. What I've learnt is that you are not going to get your own way with everything, but you have to advocate your position. If you don't stand up to another view in a debate, you're not doing your job."

But there is "core Labour stuff" to stay focused on: The cost of living, wellbeing, getting an affordable roof over people's heads, workers' rights. To that end, he was pleased to present an amendment to the Employment Relations Act to protect workers under 16.

Predictably, it was knocked back at the first reading as "it goes to the DNA of the National Party that they will never support those sorts of bills".

That's Parliament. What about the world outside? Parliament is in recess this week and that means a focus on constituency work.

Among his highlights for the week ahead are visits with the Service and Food Workers Union to workplaces in Nelson or maybe Dunedin. Or maybe even Bluff. Such vast distances.



The Press