This week, Adrian Rurawhe was sworn in as the second Māori in our history to be appointed Speaker of the House of Representatives.
While his name is unfamiliar to some, Adrian has deep political whakapapa. He’s the mokopuna of two former MPs, Matiu and Iriaka Rātana, who represented the Western Māori electorate in the 1940s and the 1950s-60s respectively. He’s also the great-grandson of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Ratana, the founder of te hāhi Rātana.
Adrian was a member of the Māori Party but left in 2008 when it supported National in government. He then worked alongside Tariana Turia until she retired. He won her Labour seat in Te Tai Hauāuru and entered parliament in 2014, going on to secure the seat in two subsequent elections.
Moana Maniapoto sat down with Adrian in parliament’s debating chamber and found him quietly self-assured about his ability to move comfortably between two worlds. This is an edited version of their kōrero, which was screened on this week’s Te Ao with Moana.
Moana: We’re sitting in a beautiful room which is symbolic of the Crown in many ways. And your role brings a lot of tikanga with it in terms of how the Crown operates. Do you think you might be able to bring a more Tiriti-focused dimension to this place?
Adrian: You’re right. There are a lot of protocols that go with the position of Speaker and also with parliament itself. But I’ve never been a fan of “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it”, meaning “that’s the best way to do it”.
So I think it’s incumbent upon me going into the role to have a look at some of the things we could do better.
There’ve been changes over time, and now there are things that we do in New Zealand that are not done anywhere else in the world. It should be the case that we have our own culture. But I’m also mindful that we have 120 members of parliament and whatever we do has to be something that the whole parliament embraces.
This is where the cut and thrust of parliament happens — where the government justifies its decisions and the opposition holds it to account. It’s now your job as Speaker to oversee the scrum and make sure everyone plays by the rules.
There’s been a long and illustrious line of Speakers doing that job, but women and Māori are notably absent from the line up — apart from Margaret Wilson and Sir Peter Tapsell. Which makes you just the second Māori in the chair. How do you think this might inform the way you go about your job?
Every Speaker brings their own style to the position. It would do me no good to try and emulate someone else. I’ll just do it the way that I think is right for me.
I’d like to think, with my experience with iwi and hapū, that I will bring that with me.
I think kaupapa Māori is an absolutely valid way of interpreting things, just as much as legal precedence is, or legal theories like natural justice. They’re of equal value in my view. While someone might see the interpretation of a standing order as natural justice, I might see it as being rangatiratanga or manaakitanga or some other kaupapa Māori.
I think as long as the outcome is fair, then no one should have any concern with that interpretation.
You were the chairman of Ngāti Apa iwi for 10 years. I’m saying that, because, boy, if you can survive those iwi roles, you’ll be okay.
I’ve had a lot of experience in chairing governance entities, in particular at iwi, hapū, and Māori organisations. I was the chair of my iwi for 10 years, and of my hapū for the best part of 20 years. I also learned a lot at the school board of trustees — I think that’s a great place to learn about good governance.
But the best training I’ve ever had, I’ve gotta say, is chairing a hapū hui. It has its challenges. We don’t have standing orders, for example. Standing orders might be one of the aunties deciding it’s time to sing a waiata as a way to calm things down.
One thing I’ve learned through all of my experiences is that fairness is really important. No matter what the rules say, people respond to being treated fairly.
And so there’ve been times in the House where it was probably technically correct to make a ruling against something, but the fairer option was to allow it. And that comes down to judgment.
I won’t always get it a hundred percent correct, but I think people are probably more likely to accept it if they get the sense that they’ve been treated fairly — and treated in the same way that someone on the opposite side of the House would’ve been treated as well.
In parliament, some people have had a meltdown because somebody Māori didn’t wear a tie — they wore a pounamu instead. Should parliament be a place where Māori can express themselves in a Māori way?
Interestingly, I’ve had discussions with presiding officers from other jurisdictions who think we’re light years ahead of everyone else in this respect. I was speaking to someone in Australia who’d seen a video of the passing of the third reading of a Treaty Settlement bill. We’ve developed our own tikanga around that over the years. And they were amazed that it was allowed to take place. Because, they said to me, that would never happen in the Australian parliament. And I said: “Well, perhaps you should have a conversation with the Indigenous people of your state, because it should be everyone’s house.”
But the traditions of parliament, the pomp and ceremony, still seem a million miles away from Aotearoa in 2022, particularly for Māori. Some parliamentary protocols do leave Indigenous Peoples feeling very conflicted. The oaths, for example?
The Oath of Allegiance, which is sworn by new members entering parliament, is an oath to the sovereign, their heirs and successors, which is difficult. I’ve got kind of two thoughts about that. Upholding our Te Tiriti o Waitangi rights is a clear partnership between the Crown and Māori, hapū and iwi. So, when I’ve come in here, swearing allegiance to the Queen, I see that as: “I’m going to be upholding my side of Treaty.”
And then secondly, my expectation is that the Crown upholds its side. Coming into this place, we are the sovereign’s parliament and opposition. We all have a role in that.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if one day people stood up and they committed to Te Tiriti o Waitangi?
My whanaunga, my aunty Tariana, was the first one that I know of who added Te Tiriti o Waitangi into her oath. And then of course, after that, the option was specifically ruled out. You can’t do that anymore. There are to be no additions. And I’ll have to make sure that’s the case while I’m Speaker too.
But new MPs could also do what I did. I held the Bible in one hand and I held a copy of the Treaty in the other. I took the oath, and certainly in my mind, and in my heart, connected to both the Bible and the Treaty. That was my personal way of expressing it.
Do you think you’ll be able to make changes? Could you theoretically say: Well, I’d like to see people have the option to swear on Te Tiriti?
That’s definitely a discussion that parliament could have. But the one thing that I’m absolutely certain of is that the Speaker cannot act alone. The Speaker is still a member of parliament and has one vote. To change anything in this place you need 61 votes. On constitutional matters, you need 75 percent of the parliament to agree.
As a Labour Party MP, tell me who you’re accountable to at the end of the day?
In taking on the role of Speaker, I’ve already formally left the Labour Party caucus. It’s inappropriate for the Speaker to attend caucus. I’ve also left the Labour Māori caucus and the rural caucus. So I won’t be participating in any of the meetings that they have.
The role of Speaker is completely unbiased and I cannot risk being accused by any other party of favouring the government over anyone else. In fact, it’s really important that the Speaker allows opposition parties to hold the government to account and also for the government to be accountable. And sometimes it will be my role in the House to have ministers be accountable and to address questions to my satisfaction.
Can you do this job and be an MP at the same time?
It’s a big job being a Māori electorate MP. And it’s obviously a huge role being Speaker. So I’ll need to have a couple of conversations — that I still haven’t yet had — about whether or not I stand as an electorate MP at the next election. Or if I just stand as a list MP. Since 1996, I think there’s only been one or two Speakers who were electorate MPs at the time they were elected and at the following election they stood as list MPS.
While you were an MP, you’ve never been ejected from the House, unlike the current Speaker, Trevor Mallard. He’s been controversial and, at times, a contentious Speaker. You two seem like quite contrasting personalities?
We have completely different personalities. But I’d count him as a friend. Trevor has been an amazing mentor, really generous with his time and opportunities. He’s never been precious about the idea that it’s him who must do this, or him who must do that. He quite readily delegates. He started delegating things to me before I even knew I was going to be Speaker.
The Speaker is technically the landlord of Parliament Buildings, and as the landlord, Trevor Mallard chose to meet anti-government protesters head on this year, with water sprinklers and Barry Manilow cranked up. I’m guessing he didn’t delegate any part of that problem to you, did he?
No, I wasn’t involved in that, and it was probably a good idea that the deputy Speaker wasn’t involved. It didn’t need another layer of decision-making. Overall, despite the commentary out there, I think the Speaker did a pretty good job under very trying circumstances.
But I could well imagine that if I was going to broadcast anything on the loudspeakers, I would actually start off with “Whakamoemiti” first and then I’d be quite happy to play a few hymns and a different playlist.
I do get the feeling you’re determined to stamp your mark on the role — and that, while you’re constrained by the rules, you’re still thinking about big picture change?
I’m certainly an advocate in my role as an MP for constitutional change. We have to have that discussion. They did some really good work starting in 2008 which ended with a report which is gathering dust on a shelf. We should all pull it out and have that discussion around how parliament operates and having an actual written constitution for our country.
There was an upper house in parliament in our history and a lot of New Zealanders today won’t realise that’s how it was. And one of the recommendations from He Puapua was that we return to an upper house which might have a role in assessing legislation from a Tiriti point of view. What role can the Speaker play to support those conversations?
That’s more of a conversation for the whole of parliament. But if we have a look at the composition of upper houses, particularly under Westminster jurisdictions (in the UK, for example, which is the home of the upper house really), then lords are appointed, and they’re appointed to represent different communities.
And I don’t see anything wrong with that kind of system. Maybe it’s time we have a good long think about how an upper house might best represent Aotearoa.
I think I’m more optimistic about coming generations than I am about my own and past generations. I think with the introduction of New Zealand history in schools, and with the acceptance of te reo Māori being more prevalent in schools, that the status and the place of Māori in our society is becoming more and more accepted. It certainly wasn’t accepted when I was at school in the 1960s.
There’s still a bit of kickback though, eh?
There still is. But I’m still optimistic. I got to preside over Youth Parliament this year and they were well-prepared and better behaved than our MPs.
You are the great-grandson of the Rātana movement founder and prophet Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. In 1924, he travelled to England to petition the king about the Treaty. The Rātana movement has had a close relationship with Labour. How might your faith inform your role?
I know I would disappoint my whānau at home if I didn’t treat people the way we do according to our faith. That means being respectful to people and being fair.
So, no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I’ll take the same value system with me. And that’s not something that I was explicitly taught. I just experienced it. If you’re growing up around the marae, it’s not exactly as if your kuia or koroua sit you down and say: “You’re to do this.” You just experience that whole environment.
I know that the Rātana hāhi is very proud that I’ve been appointed Speaker. They were very supportive of me getting into parliament in the first place. I wouldn’t be here without them.
Were you considered for a higher role in the church?
I may have been by some people within the movement. But quite a number of people view the role that I have within parliament to still be part of the legacy of Rātana. In terms of the church itself, I haven’t sought to have a higher role within it. Maybe one day when I retire, I’ll be able to take on a little bit more. But I’m quite happy with what I’m doing now.
This is an edited version of a conversation between Moana Maniapoto and Adrian Rurawhe which screened on Monday August 22 on Te Ao with Moana, on Whakaata Māori.
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