Metiria Turei – “certifiably smart”

by Dale Husband
Sun 2 Aug 2015
11 min read
  • Metiria Turei
    Metiria Turei
  • Metiria, at Parliament in Wellington, addressing the protest against the closure of indigenous communities in Australia.
    Metiria, at Parliament in Wellington, addressing the protest against the closure of indigenous communities in Australia.
  • Metiria and Piupiu
    Metiria and Piupiu

Metiria Turei took an unusual path into politics. In her 20s, for instance, she spent some time with the McGillicuddy Serious Party, and then the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party. There was a stint as well as a corporate lawyer with Simpson Grierson. But she found a more natural home for her legal and political talents when she joined the Green Party as a 30 year-old in 2000. And, since then, she has won a place in Parliament as a Green MP in the last five elections, and, for the last six years, she’s been a co-leader of the party. In that role, she has frequently displayed much more than just her trademark commitment to, and grasp of, environmental issues. There’s also an especially sharp mind, a fearlessness in facing political opponents, a colourful turn of phrase, and a good humour that has made her appealing beyond Green party boundaries. Here she outlines to Dale Husband some of the influences in her life.

Well, Metiria, we’ve spoken many times in connection with your work as an MP. But today we’re going to focus on the people and experiences that have shaped your beliefs and how you live your life. Let’s start with your dad and mum and the traits you share with them.

Dad was a practical person who could make mechanical things work, and I have some of that ability. He could also be a bit dorky and clumsy. I also have some of that.

He was a real whanau man who would share everything he had. In the last years of his life, he lived in his van. He moved around, from house to house, but didn’t overstay his welcome and tried to make as much of a contribution as he could. He believed you give as much as you have to give.

Dad was Richard Turei, and his dad, Teoti Turei, was from Papawai in Greytown. That’s Kahungunu ki Wairarapa. And his mum, Piupiu, was from Whanganui, from Jerusalem. She was whangai’d to Nanny Rose in Hiruharama. But she had shares from Taranaki, so I think she came originally from up that way. My dad was one of five. He had an older brother who died at 32 from diabetes-related illness, and he had three sisters.

My mum, Janice, came from Palmerston North. She’s one of the smartest people I know. She had a terrible education so she wasn’t able to exploit her intellect as well as she should have. If I have any brains (laughs) they come from her. She’s an extraordinary reader and is incredibly empathetic. That’s a trait she shared with my dad, and they both were prepared to make sacrifices. Our house was always full of relatives who had nowhere else to go.

We’re a funny kind of family. We’ve always managed to live very close to one another. My sister and I now live in Waitati, Dunedin, two houses away from each other. And my mum lives there as well, on a property with my sister.

Unconventional might be one way to describe your parents’ approach to life. Would that be fair?

Yes, I think so. My dad was rural bred. Went to Hato Paora. And he moved to Palmerston North, which was the big city. My mum was an orphan. She was living independently and working on her own, at 14, in Palmerston North. They were a young couple in the 70s with two young kids, me and my sister, Tania, who’s a few years younger than me. They tried to modernise the way that they lived, but it was a real struggle. So they sold their house, and bought a bus when I was about nine – and we lived in a bus for many years. They were definitely people of their generation, embracing the alternative culture around music. They took us to a lot of those festivals, like Sweetwaters. It was fun.

Did you sometimes wish they were more conventional?

I did. There were times on the bus when I really would’ve preferred to live in a house like everybody else and gone to school like the other kids – and just done normal things. But, you know, life needs to be a bit exciting, and I’m glad we didn’t settle down in a house.

I went to eight or nine schools so that made a dent in my education. I don’t have as many years of schooling as my daughter. Because of my experience I was very concerned for her to stay in school as long as possible and to move as seldom as possible. She went to four schools. You need to understand how institutions work and how power works, and that sometimes people will have power over you. And you have to learn how to manage that. That’s one of the things you can learn at school.

I once heard an Oscar winner thank his parents for being poor. He said he learned more from poverty than he would have if they’d been well to do.

Yes, it’s a whole different experience. I don’t know what it’s like to live a rich life. I don’t know what lessons you can learn from living a rich life, but the lesson you learn from living a poor one is that the only way for everybody to do okay is if everybody shares.

But the cost of sharing everything you’ve got with those around you is that you have less. So there’s a sacrifice that you make. Your own wealth is sacrificed. Your own individual pursuit is often sacrificed. Sometimes I think that the sacrifice is too great. You have to be careful about that. But, at the same time, we all do better when we collectively do better.

You went through some tough times as a teenager. But you also made contact with thinkers. With the Anarchist Society, Unemployed Rights and the McGillicuddy Serious Party. A lot of disenfranchised Pakeha as well. What did you learn from them? And how much did that period shape the type of person you’ve become?

It was an enormously important part of my political education. All my life I had been poor and with not a lot of political analysis about why we were like that. Getting involved with Unemployed Rights gave me the chance to learn about structural imposition. Decisions made by the Government had a massive impact on people I knew and thousands of others. I learned there was a way of fighting back.

The Anarchist Movement and the McGillicuddy Serious Party made me realise that it was not just Maori being harmed but a whole lot of Pakeha as well. I learned why this was and what some of the alternatives could be – a key one being that communities are best placed to manage themselves. We have all we need to be self-sufficient in New Zealand.

When did you become Maori politically conscious?

I could see how the economic decisions were affecting my family, especially my dad. He was a hard worker and proud of providing for his family. Suddenly, in his 30s, as a result of economic decisions, he was unemployable. There was also the personal cost – the loss of pride, the loss of culture, the loss of manhood. When I joined the Unemployed Rights, I realised just how widespread this was and that Maori were more affected than others.

Did your dad live to see some of your political success?

No, he died at 48. The last thing he did with me was to come to my interview to get into Law School.

You were a young mum when you went to Law School?

Yes. The baby was a year old when I started. I thought I’d better pull my socks up. I realised she relied only on me. We weren’t going to rely on a man or the state to take care of us. So I tried out for Law School and got in. At the end of my degree, I thought I was “certifiably smart” (laughter) because I now had a piece of paper to prove it. That came after years and years of bad schooling, fighting against authority and being told, either directly or indirectly, that I had no contribution to make.

Are there some people who helped you along the way?

Sue Bradford in the Unemployed Rights movement, Nin Tomas, Jane Kelsey and Andrea Tunks were my lecturers in my first law paper. Without them I wouldn’t have made it. Of course, there are lots of others too.

So you were legally brainy and then Warwick Stanton came along and swept you off your feet. Is he the Dennis (Thatcher) in the relationship?

I’d known him for a long time. He doesn’t like the media exposure. He’s a political person but we agreed when I went for the job as an MP that only one of us could be devoted to politics full-time. And so he raised Piupiu, who’s now grown up, and he’s taken care of us. Our 16th wedding anniversary is coming up.

Your daughter has surprised you by going into political studies?

Yes. She is incredibly creative with a passion for music and drama, but she’s studying International Politics and Maori Studies at Victoria University – and doing well.

Does she vote Green… although you wouldn’t know once she gets into the ballot box would you?

That’s true but I’m pretty sure she votes Green. She’s very supportive. She’s had to sacrifice a great deal. I’ve been doing this job since she was nine. She’s had to put up with a lot, like all politicians’ children do.

You’ve been a very resilient politician whose popularity appears not to have waned. I wonder what goals you’ve set, how long you’ll stay and what it is about Green politics that means it’s important for it to have an on-going prominent place in the New Zealand political landscape?

I’m here for the long haul. I’m here to get our party into Government and then to succeed in Government. That’s my number one goal. The reason why I’m in the Greens is because I think it’s the best party at making connections between the communities I belong to, the planet and the precious resources that we have. It’s the party that understands that the economy is not the driver of our country or communities but is just a tool – and that we can manage that tool in the way that best suits us. There’s no universal law for how to do that.

I guess it also comes from the same kind of alternative thinking that was around in the 1970s, so there’s a kind of cultural fit with my own family background. The Greens grew out of the Values Party. It feels like a very natural place for me to be. I wouldn’t be in any other political party.

What about te ao Maori? Who are our political leaders that you have confidence in to steer the ship on behalf of our mokopuna?

Well, that’s a hard one. I’ve been saying for a while that one of the big problems we have in Maori leadership is that it has been very focused on economic leadership in the last 20 years. There is a place for this and I understand the need for it. But it is not sufficient. It‘s not the same as the leadership of our people in the long-term, or across all of our needs. There has been some political leadership but, predominantly, it’s been economic leadership.

There’s hapu and iwi leadership emerging now that is less about economics and more about our strengths as a community and as a people. There are individuals in various pockets around the country. Dayle Takitimu and Reuben Porter come to mind. These are younger people who are showing leadership in different ways.

Are you optimistic for the future of Maori and what te ao Maori has to offer for the running of our country?

Yes, there’s progress. But it’s too slow for my personal comfort. I don’t think we have a collective vision yet of what our country could look like in 20 years’ time. We need a genuine recognition of Te Tiriti, and genuine bicultural systems and structures.

Also, we should have been through a genuine decolonisation process as a country. And, because we Maori can’t articulate collectively what that looks like, it’s very hard to work out how to get there – and hard to show it to the rest of the country as a vision that they can buy into.

I appreciate that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s hard. Very hard. But we need some more thinkers working on it. Then it’s the responsibility of those like me, who are in the job of communicating, to communicate that vision.

We have spent so much time fighting, and essentially standing still. So it’s hard to find the time to do that big thinking and to bring Maori together to work on what a decolonised Aotearoa could look like.

I’m hoping that it’s a combination of Brown and Green (laughter)

Me too.

Are you an example of yesterday’s radical becoming today’s conservative? Or does some anarchist still exist within you? You’ve got new shoes and your kaftans have been replaced by classy suits, but is there some of the Metiria of yesteryear still inside you?

I’m still very much an interloper – there must be another word for it – within the Establishment. I take on the garments of the Establishment because you have to accept that there’s a certain point at which you compromise. But I don’t believe, and I will never believe, that we have a system that works. The power in our country belongs to the communities and part of my job is to get the Government to step aside, to set up systems so that they work well – and then to get out of the way and let communities take control of what they need and deliver for their people.

I haven’t gone fully over to the dark side yet! (laughter)