Nanaia Mahuta says she is looking forward to a new chapter after 27 years in Parliament (Photo: Whakaata Māori)

This election, Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, just 21 years old, delivered one of the most stunning upsets of the night by taking Hauraki Waikato off eight-term veteran Nanaia Mahuta. The morning after that bruising defeat, Moana Maniapoto spoke with Nanaia about the campaign and her remarkable 27-year career in parliament.


Kia ora, Nanaia. Thank you for your mahi. It’s been a long time, and you’ve been there in parliament in so many different spaces. Many people we’ve talked to have spoken very warmly of you, so kia ora.

Well, I’m out, not down!

That seems to be a recurring theme — that’s what Chris Hipkins said too. So, how much of a surprise were the election results to you?

Look, the big blue tide that happened was something we’d always considered as a very real prospect, which is why an early call was made about who Labour would and wouldn’t work with. We really felt the brunt of an anti-establishment and change message. Right from the point of the “freedom movement” protest at parliament.

So we knew something was boiling and it felt a very different place in terms of New Zealand political sentiment. But, despite that, we fought right up until the close of polling day, and I’m pretty proud of our campaign.

The emergence of these much smaller parties, while they didn’t really take off, represented a certain sentiment. How has that changed things?

Yeah, they represented a protest sentiment. When we think about the protest at parliament and the profile of it, I mean, you had MAGA flags and Canadian flags and Confederate flags as well as tino rangatiratanga flags, and at the end, it was very kind of diffuse in terms of what that protest represented. But it certainly had an “anti” sentiment about it, which is what some of the smaller parties at this election represented. Is that New Zealand? I don’t think so. But we do have minor parties that, certainly since MMP, have established themselves.

You copped a lot of vitriol in the recent term — you and Jacinda in particular. How do you handle that personally?

It’s really challenging, and when you think about the vitriol that was vested in third party groups that are now represented by key parties who are going to potentially lead the country, it’s hard to handle.

I truly believe the great majority of New Zealanders are fair-minded. But we have to ensure that the reflection of that fair-mindedness actually holds the center of our country together.

Having things like a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi will take us backwards. That is not the future for our country. Having all issues defined by race, not equity, as a means of trying to justify a certain position is wrong. Because inequity exists in New Zealand. It’s evident in our health system, and it’s evident in education. So we do need a different political discourse to ensure that we don’t lose the good gains that we’ve made over this period of time.

It’s interesting how race has been used as a way to discredit equity advancements, isn’t it?

Yeah. Take health, for example. Being able to reset the health system so we can look for equitable health outcomes will be good for Māori, for Pacific, for elderly, for rural people. People who really struggle under the system as it has been. What we tried to do when we established Te Aka Whai Ora, is to say, actually, we need some balance. We need some equity of outcome.

We know that Māori are more likely to die younger. They’re less likely to be seen first. They’re more likely to be left languishing on the waiting list. And we can’t have that as a part of our future because we’re a young demographic as Māori. We will be the future workforce, if we aren’t already. And we will certainly be a key part of looking after people as they age in New Zealand. 

What have you learned about yourself after being in parliament for this length of time?

I’m lucky to be supported by a fantastic husband, and he gave me some salient words. He said: “Look, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Just keep going.” And I have adopted that perspective on a number of challenges that I’ve met in my life — and there have been many. Just keep getting up and keep moving forward.

And forward we must go.

One of the big challenges you faced must have been the foreshore and seabed. A challenging decision for you to stay. How did you work that one out in your head?

Well, actually, the first challenge I had was coming into parliament when I had just turned 26. I stood and contested the seat against Tuku Morgan. Yes, the irony of it all! Since then, we’ve  grown to understand each other and we have worked together. But, at that time, I was seen as too young. Didn’t have enough life experience, didn’t have enough ability to represent a view. That was what I was confronted with when Tuku and I contested the Te Tai Hauāuru seat.

And yes, the foreshore and seabed was another turning point in my life. It taught me a lot about how to listen to the people and their aspirations, and how to give voice to that within a political process. It was actually the first time I took myself off the party list, because I believed that if I hadn’t done a good enough job, then I’d just leave the decision up to the people. They put me back in, so I used the political process for their benefit.

I’ve learned a lot just from representing, from parliament, understanding the process and then being given the huge honour to undertake a number of roles.

There’s lots of expectations when you’re Māori in parliament, and then when you get the cabinet minister thing as well. You must just have people coming at you all the time, saying we want you to do this and that. How do you handle that?

If you don’t know yourself, know who you are, what you stand for and your values, then you will struggle. If you don’t have internal fortitude and strength around what you believe in, that place will eat you up in a minute.

When I think about young people coming into parliament, like Hana, it’s really important to have a strong support base to be able to — not shield you, because you have to have all the experiences of that place — but to give you perspective, to ground you, and to be able to provide other views so that you can navigate what is ultimately a very different place, in order to get progress.

One of the things I did say to her is that it’s simply not good enough to simply stand on the sidelines. Hauraki Waikato deserves representation, where our issues are front-row and central to taking this country forward — and we have to advocate in that way.

Is that a challenge, representing an electorate and then having these ministerial portfolios? Because it must take your energy into different places?

You try and conserve your energy so that you are as efficient as you can be with the roles that you have. If you’ve been given the opportunity to be a minister, you always consider the portfolio and what it can do and how you take your policies forward to improve the lives of your people. And, hopefully, that translates back to your electorate.

When I think about the rates remission of whenua Māori, that I did when I was the Māori Development minister, and the procurement policy, or when I think about the Māori housing strategy, all of that had a nationwide benefit. But it also had an electorate benefit, and we’ve seen the fruits of that coming through.

It’s similar in my portfolio of foreign affairs. Now, in my little community, they don’t talk about foreign affairs at all. So you have to try and figure out, okay, what part of that role might translate back successfully to them? And so I’d say: “Look, what we’re trying to do is make sure that there’s a tirohanga Māori perspective in there. We’ve been traders for a very long time, that’s what we’re trying to achieve in terms of a progressive trade agenda.”

I’d try and explain it like that so that they see the fruits of my contribution, not only for Māori in general and New Zealand in general, but also how that translates back at home. 

Of all the portfolios that you’ve held, which one are you most proud of?

Māori development and local government. Because you touch every community that you have a heart for, and you get to hear the real innovative opportunities that exist. I’m inspired by the aspirations and the opportunities that are out there if we partner with iwi and with Māori effectively.

There’s a lot of talk in politics about succession planning. But my focus in terms of succession planning is local government, which is why establishing the Māori wards was so important. You’re giving opportunities to young Māori to be a community or local board member and then get on to council. And then the natural progression is to come into parliament, and they’ve already equipped themselves with the necessary skills to walk in two worlds confidently.

Then, for foreign affairs, I would say increasing the number of women at posts. That doesn’t happen by accident. That was very deliberate. Also ensuring that we’ve had the first Indigenous chapters in trade agreements. It’s a starting point. It’s not the exemplar, but we can move forward from there and we shouldn’t move backwards. And having an Indigenous perspective within foreign policy gives us a much broader toolkit to navigate our way through this complex time.

Probably the area that still needs strengthening is to ensure that, as foreign affairs evolves as a ministry, it holds its Treaty obligations at the front of the way that it operates as an organisation.

Are you worried about how things might play out in the next three years?

I am worried, but I don’t sit in the world of worry, you know? That’s why I put my hand up to represent. And I think that those who now have the task of representing have to turn worry into action. Make sure that our whānau don’t bear the brunt of what could be a worrisome set of outcomes. We can’t have our most vulnerable whānau being further impoverished by policies that don’t work for them. We can’t have our kaumātua making decisions about: “Do we pay for our power bill, or our kai, or our pills?” We just can’t have that in a country like ours.

And we certainly can’t have a situation where the Treaty is up for grabs. In my mind, we’ve come too far and we can’t go backwards. We have to keep going forwards. We have to evolve as a nation with the Treaty at the foundation of how we represent our sense of nationhood.

Speaking of nationhood, the Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is dead in the water. How do you feel about that?

It will take the conversation within Australia, sadly, further backwards in terms of trying to not only address the longstanding issues between Australians and their Indigenous people, but to advance Indigenous aspiration. So, it’s a sad outcome for Australia in general. 

Who do you think about now, when you’re in this time of reflection after 27 years?

The night of the election, I could see how things were trending and I knew I would call it. So I gave Hana a call, accepted the outcome. People had made their decision. Hana’s in and I’m out, and I’m going to move on.

I’ll get time to spend with whānau, get time to spend on myself. I’ll get time to do some writing, which I want to do, and time to map out what my next steps are and choose the things I want to put my hands to. And you know, that’s quite a liberating feeling.

I look at a number of politicians who are out of that place, and how relieved, relaxed and vibrant they look. And some of them look even younger now than they did when they were in parliament. So, you know, it’s all in front of me.

Do you think about your dad too, the kind of role that he played in shaping you?

Yeah, I think about both my father and my mother. They had a big influence on my life. And when I think about the things that I’ve achieved over these 27 years, I think they’d probably say to me: “Ka pai, you did really well. You did the best that you could with what you were given, and we’re proud of you.”

Kia kaha, Nanaia. He nui ngā mihi ki a koe.


This is a lightly edited version of Moana Maniapoto’s interview with Nanaia Mahuta which was screened on Te Ao with Moana, on Whakaata Māori.


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