Shane Jones has, at times, seemed destined for the political heights. In the course of his nine years in the Labour Party, he came close to becoming the party’s leader, just one step away from the Prime Minister’s job. Then, 18 months ago, he sidelined himself by stepping down as an MP and taking on a roving role as the Ambassador for Pacific Development. No more political aspirations? Maybe. Maybe not. He could, of course, rejoin Labour. Or be embraced by New Zealand First in the event of Winston Peters one day tiring of the spotlight and the intrigue. Whatever his future, Shane has already had a colourful career, helped along by his talents and grooming as a young orator and leader, his prowess as a student at Tipene and Auckland University and also by a stint at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here he talks with Dale about the path he’s taken so far.
Your story, so I understand, has its beginnings, way up north, more than 50 years ago — and it includes Croatian bloodlines as well as a Māori whakapapa.
That’s true. I was born in the Kaitaia Hospital on September 3 in 1959, when my mum was 19 or 20. She’d just qualified as a school teacher and had been dispatched to her first job, at Awanui School.
My dad, one of 17 children, was 26. And his mother was the first recorded half-Tarara, half-Māori member of our iwi and in our rohe. My tupuna was Andrija Kleskovic from a little papakāinga called Mlini, near Dubrovnik on the south coast of Croatia.
But, in the late 1880s, he was here in Aotearoa, digging gum and doing what other young, footloose Croatians were doing. They were escaping from what I think was the Austrian-Hungarian empire. And, because they came, by and large, from the coast of Dalmatia, they were known here as Dalmatians.
He was a fast-moving sort of guy — and Māori dubbed him Anaru Tuna. He had 14 children, two of whom served in the Pioneer Māori battalion and saw action at Gallipoli and various other points during the Great War in 1914-18. One of them, Uncle Sonny, was awarded the Military Cross for valour. And he had a great story. He survived, he believed, only because of what the tohunga did for him before he left Aotearoa.
The story we grew up with is that the tohunga offered to karakia some of the young men who were going away. Uncle Sonny was among those who went to a puna where certain rites were performed. All in Māori. It would’ve been the warriors incantation, to protect and keep them strong. And he was given a cloth — it might have been a scarf — and encouraged, because it had been blessed, to wear it at all times.
And he was wearing it, strapped around his head when shrapnel struck and killed several of his friends. Some of the shrapnel was embedded in the skull of my uncle. But the scarf prevented it from penetrating his brain. Eventually, he was operated on, and a steel plate inserted — and he carried that until the day he died. He gave credit to the scarf and to the tohunga’s karakia for keeping him alive.
So that’s a little bit of a connection with our Tarara side. And our Māori side comes partly from our Tarara tupuna marrying into the iwi of Te Aupōuri, Ngāi Takoto. His wife was Erina Kaka, a tapairu, a high-ranking woman with land rights and so on. Her father was Hohepa Kaka and her mother was Aneta Marupo, from Houhora in the far north.
Ka pai. And your mum’s background?
Mum is from a little valley called Honeymoon Valley, at the back of Taipa. Her grandfather was what was known as a remittance man. The remittance men were the children of reasonably well-off English parents, or minor gentry. And, if they had sons who were constantly tutuing, they were dispatched out to the colonies where they became known as remittance men because English family money was remitted to them from time to time.
He married a Māori woman and she was from Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa. So my grandfather was a mix of English and Māori. And he married Nana Myrtle, who was one of 12 or 13 children in a big pioneer family. She was a full-blooded Pākehā. Some of her tūpuna came into Christchurch and they’re buried all around New Zealand with whakapapa back to England and either Germany or France.
That’s my mum’s background. She was born in 1939. Very proud of her Māori heritage. Had six children. I’m the oldest. And she’s still a school teacher at the age of 76.
That account of your whakapapa indicates that you’re from bloodlines that were quite marginalised here in Aotearoa. The Croatians were looked down upon and had to go to the gum-fields because no one would give them a job. Then you’ve got your taha Māori side which has had it tough, too. The colonisation process has had both cultures reeling, hasn’t it?
We were reared to respect our Tarara whakapapa. We were taken to the Cola dance group, and a lot of the Māori around us at Awanui and further north were of mixed blood. In respect of the Māori side, the Anglican church played a big role in our upbringing. It was through the Anglican church that I was sent to Tipene, St Stephen’s School.
Whilst hardship was a key feature of the upbringing of my father, one of 17 children, they were of that generation who wanted to fend for themselves as well. Tremendously hard workers. Great work ethic — although not a hell of a lot of them grew fantastically wealthy from that work ethic.
However, they were a group of men and women in the very far north where there were not huge extremities of haves and have nots. There were pockets of indigence in the more isolated Māori communities. But they themselves were people who knew how to live off the land. And they had a love of the language and the culture. That’s why you’ll find places, in the isolated areas around the north, where the language, the culture, and the knowledge of their genealogy have been strong and still remain strong today.
But none of us were born with a silver spoon in our mouths. There was no notion of that. We were not born into wealth.
Although you’ve stepped aside from political life in the last year or so, you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in politics. Where did that interest come from?
Well, I was always attracted to current affairs. I think that’s what they called it when I was at St Stephen’s. But the arrival of Dame Whina Cooper and the Matakite march in 1975 was a significant factor in my political awareness.
I saw a lot of my relations rally around and support Whina’s tono to hīkoi, to march and to wake up the land so that our rights would be safeguarded. That was a very political act. From then on, I wouldn’t say I’d set upon a course, but my own eyes had been opened up.
Also, at Tipene, we had a very good group of school teachers. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge them. Like Awi Riddell who inculcated into me a love of, and esteem for, the Māori language. Constantly encouraging us to value our reo.
Although a lot of people spoke the language, I think it’s fair to say that they didn’t regard it with the pride it has warranted as the vehicle carrying a proud tradition back to Hawaiki. That came to me from Awi Riddell and Scotty McPherson. They taught us to have pride in such things. It may sound a bit corny but that is the truth.
Protest activity came later. We’d been to Bastion Point a few times as boys from Tipene. I was the school orator at that stage. But in 1978 I started varsity. We were active in supporting, predominantly, the recognition and the rights surrounding the Māori language. And in some obscure story in the Woman’s Weekly was the first interview I ever gave about such matters.
At varsity I studied politics. I also did economics and Māori — and I think I might’ve done the classics as well. As a result, I came out of those university years with a strong sense of political consciousness. From that point I was dedicated to maintaining awareness and building profile to defend Māori rights, wherever those rights might be debated.
In respect of the Tarara side, the interaction was at a family level. When I became a politician, I was called upon, on many occasions, to help officiate at various ceremonies, and I had no compunction whatsoever in doing that. In fact, some of the happiest memories of my time as a politician were in my interaction with businessmen and elements of the New Zealand Croatian community. They claimed me as one of their own and I was very, very well-connected with them.
You’ve referred to your role as the whānau orator. You’re widely recognised for your oratory. But how were those skills developed?
What happened to me at a very young age is akin, I think, to what’s happened with a lot of American black families. If any child shows a special talent, as with their gospel singing for instance, then they foster that talent.
I had a talent for reading and for speaking. And, as a young boy, I would constantly be called upon by my grandmother and others to lead prayers, say grace, read the Bible. So, before I’d finished primary school, I had no shyness. I could, without much effort, deliver a good speech. Then I went to Tipene and that talent was recognised there, and I was encouraged to go into whaikōrero.
But, prior to that, Scotty McPherson and Rawhiti Ihaka arranged for me to go and learn some old Ngāpuhi waiata. That was in the day when Tarutaru Rankin, a famous Ngāpuhi orator, was around. A giant of a man.
He judged the whaikōrero competition, and he gave me some positive feedback that still rings in my ears today. They were only too keen to encourage me because I had passion for it and they were looking for a sponge. The people I refer to include the Reverend Māori Marsden and Nicky Conrad.
Whether it’s the thespian in me, I’m not sure, but oratory was something that I derived a lot of pride from — and a sense of accomplishment. And I was able to carry the knowledge, and the mana really, of our identity. So, as a young boy, I didn’t shirk from it. I sprinted towards it to be honest.
Recently I interviewed a Samoan lawyer, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. And he was still hōhā, close on infuriated as a matter of fact, about how, as a student at Auckland Grammar 20 years ago, he (and his schoolmates) were short-changed when it came to Māori and Pacific history. But perhaps that wasn’t the situation at Tipene.
Well, there were a number of Pacific lads at Tipene with us. And they were very proud of their whakapapa. I recall David Stanley from Tonga, Arthur Rex from Niue, Alfred and Allan Carlos and a host of other Vanuatu boys. Then there were Nandi Glassie, Tuane Howard, Paul Ellsworth and Tata Crocombe from Rarotonga, and Teo Cooper from the Solomons.
When you’re schoolboys, everyone is just a mate or a competitor or a combatant. But those PI boys were very confident in who they were — and they never ever denigrated anything Māori. They were primarily in Aotearoa to gain a western education to augment what they already knew of their own people.
At that stage, St Stephen’s thrived on rugby. And the primary expression of things Māori was through the concert party. But there were a number of boys who had come to the school already strong in their culture.
I’m thinking of the boys we had from Tūhoe who were deeply immersed in their language and the traditions of Tūhoe. Predominantly the Ringatū church. And then there were the boys from the north. And a smattering of others — Rikirangi Gage and Selwyn Parata and a few others from other rohe. But it was generally those from the north and the Tūhoe boys who provided the competition for whaikōrero and such things.
The names of the houses reflected some of our Māori history. One was Panapa, one was Pomare, one was Bennett, one was Selwyn. We didn’t know the role that Bishop Selwyn had played in earlier eras of New Zealand’s history. But we all knew who Panapa was. We all knew who Bennett was. We all knew who Pomare was. And these were figures we were encouraged to live up to.
But, of course, eurocentrism drove the educational narratives. That’s why scholars and teachers like Ranginui Walker have been so important. They were brilliant because they challenged young people, like ourselves, to stand up and own our history — and contribute to the evolution of our identity and to the evolution of political and societal changes.
Ranginui was constantly challenging us. And, in a slightly different way, Sid Mead did too, although he always struck me as more of a traditionalist than Ranginui.
Shane, despite those and many other valuable influences, we didn’t have to look very far in those days to see how disadvantaged our people were. Did that ever prompt some moments when you thought about the appeal of pushing the Pākehā into the sea?
Well, in 1984-85, there was a bunch of us who were the foundation members of the Kawariki group. Hone Harawira was one. Haami Piripi another. And also Ngareta who was my wife and has now sadly passed away.
The Kawariki group had two kaupapa. One was to challenge ourselves — to wake ourselves up. The second was to challenge the system. And our aim was to challenge the system by creating as much din as possible. Of course, Waitangi had that magnetic force, and that’s where we did a lot of those protests.
But it wasn’t a matter of telling the descendants of white settlers to pack up and go back to England. No. It was more about challenging ourselves, to own our identity, our heritage, our culture — and really be rangatira of our own destiny.
I think that was a liberating experience for a whole lot of young mothers and fathers. Ngareta and I were 24 and 25 at the time, and that sort of passed down to our children. But there were two different elements to the situation. One is how waves of colonisation throughout the Pacific, including Aotearoa, have marginalised the iwi and their descendants — as well as denuding families of their land, their rights, and their language.
But there’s also the other side. It’s how we should respond to that treatment. Should we be just a passive recipient? Or stand up? Some of the greatest songs of our Māori waiata came from that time. Such as Maranga Mai, or even the great waiata composed by the young people protesting with Whina Cooper, Ko ngā waka ēnei.
You’ve got important mahi now as you travel around the Pacific and, in some ways, help weave us together. My impression is that the Māori-Pasifika relationships are now less “them and us” than they used to be. Is that how you see things?
Some years ago, during the 1970s, we got to know Sam Sefuiva and his cohorts. They were six or seven years older than us. And I recall a woman by the name of Paddy, Fijian I think, challenging us not to be too “insular”. Taura Eruera would remember this time. The challenge was how to embrace the struggle of Pacific families as well. After all, we were all young, in Auckland, and facing similar obstacles.
I’ve gone on to rely on Sam quite a bit in the job I have now.
But you’re right in referring to the “them and us” attitude that was common not so long ago. Certainly it was there in the labour market and in the pubs. But now there is a greater awareness, these days, of the links between us. Our histories. Our languages. Our legends.
That’s one thing that I have to acknowledge Hilda Harawira for. She was ahead of her time. She had a massive network in the early 1980s — through the anti-nuclear movement. With Māori and with community leaders and activists in the Pacific.
And, in my Pacific travels, I’m always made welcome — and I’m always struck by the level of interest they have in the Māori experience.