When politics is in the DNA

23:44, Nov 17 2011

Much has been made of the family political history of Te Tai Tonga candidate Rino Tirikatene, which is quite understandable. His aunty Whetu held the Southern Maori seat for nearly 30 years and had a high-profile political career. She had initially taken the seat in a 1967 by-election after her father, and Rino's grandfather, Sir Eruera Tirikatene, passed away.

Sir Eruera also had a high profile and played a vital role in Maori politics, being the first Ratana-Labour member of Parliament. He was a World War I veteran who turned to the Ratana church in the 1920s, becoming one of Wiremu Tahupotiki Ratana's most trusted supporters. He won the Southern Maori seat in 1932 and held it until his death.

For voters of a certain generation, the name Tirikatene is synonymous with Labour, Ratana and the Southern Maori seat.

But Rino is not the only Te Tai Tonga candidate with a significant family legacy.

Rahui Katene, the Maori Party incumbent, is the daughter of John Hippolite, a Maori activist of some renown from the northern South Island. He was raised on Durville Island and fought in the Korean War but was best known as a rights activist. His early years of protest, during the 1960s, were anti-war rallies but over time he was more and more focused on Maori rights.

He was arrested at the Raglan Golf Course and Bastion Point occupations and accused the judicial system and the Mormon Church of racism. He continued to champion Maori social, justice and environmental issues until he passed away in the early 1990s.


Although John Hippolite held no formal position in Parliament he was highly political and committed to social change.

Interestingly, Green Party candidate Dora Langsbury also has a family legacy in Maori politics. Her father, Kuao Langsbury, is from the Karetai family and is a respected Maori leader in the southern South Island. He was heavily involved in the Ngai Tahu Claim and was a member of the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust Board for several years, most noticeably during the Waitangi Tribunal hearings and the establishment period of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu. He also chaired the Ngai Tahu Holdings Corporation during the early years, building the strong reputation it now enjoys.

Then there is Mana candidate Clinton Dearlove. He does not appear to belong to any local political dynasty and his connection to the southern iwi is not clear. He does claim Waitaha as an iwi affiliation which rings a warning bell for me as it potentially harks back to the fairytale nonsense dreamt up by Barry Brailsford. That aside, though, his main tribal ascription is to the people of the Far North, and if he is to have any great success it is not established local history that will assist him.

So what does this family reputation stand for? As in many other cultures, this type of legacy means everything and nothing. It is similar to the first four ships phenomenon one encounters in Canterbury. There is no tangible reward for being a descendant of an original migrant or an ex-prime minister, for that matter, but it can mean much for who you are as a person, how you relate to others, how easily you are accepted into certain circles and the expectations others have of you.

These are important factors in politics though they do not create success. They merely represent opportunity. After that it is up to the candidate.

Labour has put a lot of stock in Rino Tirikatene clawing back the Te Tai Tonga seat and he has entered the fray with its campaign machinery behind him, as well as his family reputation and whatever politically aggressive DNA he may have inherited from his grandfather. But at some point it is up to him to prove himself and so far he has struggled. He has not shone in public debate and he has not found spaces where he can excel. I suspect the name may not be enough.

On the other hand the Mana candidate has apparently been winning people over with intellect, charm and presentation - equally important tools for a successful politician. But Clinton is well on the back foot with no great party campaign, no local reputation and no existing party loyalties to speak of.

Dora Langsbury will recognise that her chances of winning the seat are slim but, like last election, she will campaign hard for party votes.

I still suspect Rahui Katene has the edge. She and her family are well known and those few years in Parliament may give her the campaign experience necessary to win. But I suspect the real success factor for Rahui will come down to how the Maori Party actually gets in behind her. Now more than ever the leadership needs to be seen to back her.

The Press