An Act Party billboard getting no love in Onehunga, Auckland.

Some people become leaders because they prove themselves worthy, writes Tainui Stephens, while others are chosen to be leaders because they’ve promoted themselves as worthy. How do we make a vote for our leaders count?


I never knew David Seymour had such googly eyes. Well, he doesn’t, but at least the right-wing politician still had eyes — unlike the woman pictured next to him on the election billboard. Her face had been savagely slashed.

Placards and posters for the upcoming general election are popping up all over the place. Depending on the political hue of the neighbourhood, you can be sure that billboards from the other side get special attention. Small posters appear on fences, carefully coloured with only a few words and a name — perhaps that means a longer life. Some families are happy to declare their loyalty with oversize posters and flags festooned over the whole home.

But the violence directed at the cheesy grins of wannabe politicians doesn’t always come from zealous opponents. One of the roads into Ōtaki had been packed with billboards. On the night before the first day of official campaigning, someone had destroyed them all. Except for one. The picture of an earnest politician’s head had been replaced by an optimistic penis. An accidental metaphor perhaps, but one that many could relate to.

At election time, I try to put my own political bias aside and vote for individuals who I believe could represent me and my community. I look for evidence of leadership both from that person as well as their political party. The winners of an election, especially the high and mighty, will in due course be called “rangatira”. This will come in the form of deference and elevated oratory from some people. “Tēnā koe e te rangatira,” they will say.

This term for chief is overused, and undervalued.

A rangatira is more than just a chief. Like many words, the nuance of its original meaning is lost through time and habit. The word “raranga” means to weave. A “tira” is a group of people who have a purpose. A rangatira is one who weaves together people who are on the move. A rangatira may inspire people to cohesive action through personal example or a persuasive personality. A rangatira must have the empathy to understand the powerful yet frail humanity of those in their charge.

In 1980, my wife Poto and I joined the Manurewa-based kapa haka Manawanui. Our club leaders were husband and wife, Archie and Maidey Tamanui. They’d gathered around them a small group of urban Māori who wanted to learn about culture. We sure had a purpose, and we were definitely on the move.

Archie and Maidey wove us together with knowledge, patience, and unvarnished love. We weren’t a competition group, and most of our performances were for community events.

One of the popular songs in our bracket was “Te Rina” by Tommy Taurima. Our group would turn this sweet love song for a granddaughter into a larger story. We’d sing it once with actions, and then repeat it without actions or words — just “Uuuuuu . . .” as quiet backing vocals to Archie’s commentary. He would spin a yarn about a small child called Te Rina growing up under the watchful eye of her kaumātua.

Māori elders always observed the children of their tribe with keen interest. They still do. They could interpret a child’s habits at play or alone and understand what role in life would best suit them. Those children could then be assigned training in the arts, tribal histories, or warfare — a sophisticated education that would draw out their skills for the benefit of the tribe. Some would become leaders, but all would serve the people according to their abilities.

As the audiences lapped up Archie’s entertaining tale, I knew there was some truth in it. I’d watch Maidey at the back of the audience flashing her huge grin at us, and quietly commanding us to “Smile!”

Archie also taught me that a leader must keep their word. One day, we had to perform for a rest home. But only three of us turned up at Archie and Maidey’s home. We suggested that, with such a small turnout, we should call off the engagement. But no. We got into Archie’s massive American car and headed off to Papatoetoe.

It was hosing down with torrential rain and the window wipers wouldn’t work. Vision was impossible. Archie had to reach out and hit the wipers with his umbrella to get them to move a little. When he’d stopped swearing at the wipers and the weather, I suggested once again that we flag the gig. He replied with quiet patience: “You never pull out of a promise. You keep your word.”

Archie and Maidey were natural leaders. They were larger-than-life characters with charisma, skill, and a lot of love. They devoted themselves to the Māori world, and to sharing what they knew with us. Leadership during the good times is easy, but they also wove us together so that we might participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.

Our Māori world has no shortage of rangatira. Only some of them are politicians.

Every election, I look at the growing numbers of Māori in politics and am amazed at the diversity. There are a few on the loony left or the loony right, but most are in the middle. All of them grapple with a Pākehā system obsessed with three rules of tribal party politics. You must be loyal. Wait your turn. And winning is everything.

Western democracies function by turning power into a prize. Western leadership gives power to individuals who win. Western capitalism has monetised the whole process. It’s hard to reconcile the profit motive with the human needs for housing, education, good health, and justice.

New York is one the great centres of western capitalism. It’s the capital city of Planet America. I first went there in May 1994. Two memories stand out.

As I stood before Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, I looked up to the skyline of gigantic buildings and marvelled at the immensity that surrounded me. It reminded me of the awe I’d felt the previous week at a tangi in northern New Zealand. I’d gone out late at night to spend quiet time with the spirit of the land.

On clear, starlit nights, the mountains of home are silhouetted slabs of grandeur that you know have been there for untold thousands of years. A fact like that gives you the gift of humility. There’s no way a tiny human me could be greater than nature.

I stood on Fifth Ave and wondered how I would feel about the majesty that was around me, if this was my home by day and night. If I grew up alongside these mountains of concrete and steel, I could look skywards to their peaks and think: “That’s man-made! I can be bigger than that!”

I wondered if this was a clue to the American dream and dilemma. Despite their huge contribution to the world, their obsessive need for continual growth as the solution to any problem has done terrible damage to our environment and our humanity.

The second vivid memory occurred the very next day.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had died. The former First Lady, writer and photographer was a major social and fashion icon of the times. She was a beloved resident of New York. When the news came out, the whole city went quiet. Somehow the Big Apple felt a sense of loss and respect for one of their own. The constant soundtrack of a bombastic city that echoed around its canyons went quiet for a day.

I realised that even in this vast urban citadel of ambition and greed, a human heart could still beat.

Indigenous leadership balances power by sharing it among specific leaders for specific purposes. We have elders who are the guardians of the language and traditions that define us. They participate in western systems only if they wish. We have community leaders who encourage their people to act as a collective. They’re often disruptive, or at least characterised as such. They get stuff done. Then there are the leaders who believe in adaptation to the mainstream ideologies. They are believers in wider societal change and may be at odds with the cautions of their elders.

As a species, we kind of muddled along with a growth rate that didn’t really change much for many millennia. But with the industrial revolution in the 18th century, our growth went sky high. Thanks to the machines we invented, we learned to do things well beyond the capacity of our muscles. When the digital revolution kicked in two centuries later, the invention of computers allowed us to live beyond the capacity of our brains. Our growth went off the charts. With the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, we may not even understand the charts of our growth.

Human beings are now living far beyond our design specifications. I’ll vote for leaders who have still held on to their minds, for they will surely know that hate is incapable of finding effective and enduring solutions for the difficult challenges of life. I’ll vote for rangatira who know their own heart and who welcome the hearts of others.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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