The polls have been telling us that New Zealand First is doomed — and that it won’t last beyond the general election in a fortnight. Could be, although Winston Peters and his colleagues have survived death scares in the past. One of those colleagues over the last six years has been Fletcher Tabuteau who, inevitably, hasn’t had much media attention because Winston has had a career-long knack of attracting the limelight — and Shane Jones doesn’t do a bad job of that either. Fletcher has a much different set of skills and style from those two as you can see in this chat with Dale.
Kia ora, Fletcher. But maybe I should be saying “Bonjour” seeing you have a French whakapapa?
That French connection goes back a few generations. The Tabuteau family has long history in New Zealand — starting off, so I understand, up in Russell. There are Tabuteau bones in the first cemetery up there.
But our more recent links have been in Rotorua and Murupara. My dad, David, a Pākehā, ran a clothing store in Murupara. And he married Maria, a Te Arawa princess from the Gear family who are Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Ngāti Ngāraranui. So we spent a lot of our time at the Waiteti marae and at Awahou. And there’s a Tauranga Moana influence as well.
Where did the name Fletcher come from?
I think it was just that Mum was sweet on Marlon Brando who was Fletcher Christian in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. If only I was half as good-looking. Then I was given a middle name, Hoporona. That’s from a Waiteti-Ngāraranui koro.
Any brothers or sisters?
Just my younger sister, Stacey, who, unfortunately, was born with a hole in her heart. She got to 30 but she was always suffering from ill health and her heart had to struggle. She had a tough run.
Should I assume you always had flash clothes as a kid, seeing that your dad ran a clothing shop?
That shop had a bit of everything. It was drapery, sewing, shoes and clothes. And it was at the Murupara market, so I’m not sure you could say my clothes were flash. But they were always tidy, always good.
I’m assuming that, because your kids are at a Catholic school in Rotorua, there’s a faith streak running through the whānau.
You’re right — although, ironically, going way back, the Tabuteaus were Huguenots, who were French Protestants. They were kicked out of France because they weren’t Catholic. But I’ve been baptised in the Catholic church, and Karen, my wife, is a teacher in a Catholic primary school.
What school did you go to?
That was here in Rotorua at Otonga primary where, back in my day, there were only three or four of us Māori kids. I’m sure it’s changed now, but it was two worlds when we were growing up. This very Pākehā school and then going out to the marae. After Otonga, I went on to Rotorua Intermediate and then Rotorua Boys’ High.
And then you studied at Waikato University which is under some heat now. I always thought it would be the learning place for Māori. Are you surprised at the suggestion now about the Māori academics getting a raw deal there?
I am genuinely surprised. I don’t know the full story. But, if it’s real and if there’s now a clash of cultures, then it has really changed. I remember, when I was a careers advisor at Boys’ High, that I’d proudly take some of our Māori students over to the uni so they could see firsthand how Māori culture and mātauranga were valued. So, if there has been a change, that’s quite sad.
When you moved on to uni, more than 20 years ago, you focused on economics. That’s not a subject that has appealed to a lot of our people. What attracted you?
I think it was one of my teachers at Rotorua Boys’ High. He was just a hard man and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. And you know how we were as teenage boys — you did whatever you could to do as little as you could. But I think there was something about it that grabbed me.
Then, when I did international management for my degree, some of the economics papers were compulsory. And I grew to like the subject so much that I went back to Waikato to do a number of postgraduate papers in economics.
For the last 30 years, there’s been an assumption that it’s best to let the markets decide. That if people are left to buy and sell from one another, that will fix everything. And that we’re all in a race against one another, and it’s natural for people to be selfish.
But when you look at the real world, and especially when you look at New Zealand, particularly now with all of us coming out of Covid — you realise we’re all in this together. That’s true with the economy as well. And we have to work together to awhi one another.
That’s what the last three years for New Zealand First has been about. It’s about changing the way that a government supports Māori. For New Zealand First, that has been particularly through job training, economic development, and mental health.
I could go on for hours about how we could refine the economy, but I think the most important lesson from my six years as an MP has been that a government can’t step away and say everything will sort itself out. I believe, and New Zealand First believes, that a good government is one that can awhi and support all of our people.
I guess there’s the perception that Māori can learn from Pākehā commercial success. When we look at the way our people run intergenerational business, some Pākehā businesses could learn from the way we conduct our economic activities, don’t you think?
I used to be the head of the management and business school at Waiariki Polytech, which is now called Toi Ohomai. And we had some amazing Māori academics in our faculty. We were teaching high-level postgraduate qualifications, and the challenge was to understand Māori business better and see how Māori expertise can contribute to New Zealand’s economy.
And one contribution is to avoid the tendency of conventional economics to be very short-sighted and focused on the here and now. When Pākehā talk about “long-term”, they rarely mean it the way Māori do. We’re multi-generational. We think about what a business decision may mean for our grandchildren and their children.
There’s also a risk, isn’t there, that, in our pursuit of commercial success, we can be sacrificing environmental welfare?
I don’t think that has to be a cultural thing. Some of my cuzzies have been the biggest nuisances when it comes to fishing quotas or cutting down trees they weren’t supposed to. But Māori culture tells us to respect our environment and, in the main, that’s what we do.
I think New Zealand has a competitive advantage over a lot of the rest of the world. There are a few countries ahead of us, but we understand what a good environment means for us as people. Like striving towards swimmable rivers.
And when I’ve travelled around the world as a deputy foreign minister, the feedback on our zero carbon policy, for example, was hugely positive — especially in the Pacific.
I remember the economist Brian Easton saying that Māori will catch up but that we’re two generations behind. We came into the cities that weren’t conducive to our skillset back in the 1950s, and we’re still struggling to find our feet because the labour market changed. So we’ve been knocked around. But Brian has had some hope and confidence that, in a couple of generations, it could come right. Do you see some of that?
I know we have problems in the homes but it’s in the schools where our kids have the opportunity to make huge leaps and bounds for themselves and for Māori.
Among the students I taught at Raukura (Rotorua Boys’ High), there was one who went on to work at a top law firm and then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another is now working for the Reserve Bank. Another is a doctor. And so on. And the achievers came from all sorts of backgrounds in terms of income, or how flash their house was.
Along the way, have you come across any books that have helped shape your ideas?
There’s one to do with sustainable economics that set me thinking. That’s Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. The standard belief has been that we have to be constantly growing and expanding. But that ignores environmental constraints and our dependence on technology.
This book, though, is an easy read about striking the right balance between this “need” to grow and the realities of our constrained resources. And it points out how we can’t keep digging stuff up all the time and polluting, unless we get the balance right.
You got into politics quite young. Maybe only 20 or 21.
I was still a teenager. I think Winston and I are the only ones in the current caucus who were at the launch of New Zealand First in 1993. Mum and Dad were political. They both saw in Winston a chance to help change New Zealand. So I signed up, although I wasn’t one of those young enthusiasts in the youth wing. I just got on with my life, but I always contributed to the party in the Rotorua electorate.
So I became a member and then I was the secretary or the treasurer, and the chairman at times. And I contested a few elections. I remember, back when I was a high school teacher, a mate calling me the “most failed politician he’d ever met” because I still hadn’t made it into parliament after four shots at it.
But my dad believed that you should all “do your part”. It seems worse today with more people sitting on the sidelines and tweeting their views or doing a thumbs up on Facebook — and not getting out there to protest or to help make a difference.
Dad always told me that it doesn’t matter how small, you should just get out there and do your part. My part was lending New Zealand First a hand for 20 years and getting on with my life of teaching and business and lecturing. And then making it as an MP in 2014.
The other day, Willie Jackson made the point that the hardest job in politics is to stand for the first time. He was saying that it’s easy to fire shots from the sidelines, but it’s tough putting your name forward because that means raising your head above the parapet and having your face on billboards.
Well, you do make yourself a target for a number of people who bring derision and negativity. There may be a few MPs who enjoy the limelight, but most of us are just normal people who are simply saying: “I don’t like the way things are going in our country. I want to try to make a difference.”
I’ve developed quite a warm relationship with Winston over the years, although he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But there’s something unique about the way he rolls. There’s a perception that he’s the handbrake guy. Possibly one of these “Kiwi first, Māori second” operators. But he’s a political kaumātua. And, I’d suggest, a very proud Māori man. How do you read him?
I’ve looked up to him for a long time and I finally got the privilege of working with him in 2014. As you know, he has a memory like an elephant — he doesn’t forget detail. And he’s passionate about what he’s achieved. Not just for New Zealand, but for Māori as well.
For instance, there’s the support he’s given to the Māori Women’s Welfare League and to the Māori Wardens. There’s also the work he did, back in the day, with Ngāi Tahu and then the central North Island programmes. And, in this last term, there’ve been the economic developments resulting from the Provincial Growth Fund.
Too often the media (and political opponents) paint a picture of Winston that shortchanges him and New Zealand First and doesn’t represent the mahi he’s done over the decades for Māori — and for all of New Zealand.
Being the deputy to him in foreign affairs must have been at times tremendously satisfying.
It’s incredible, right? I sometimes point out to people that, of the two people in charge of foreign affairs, one is from up north and one is from Te Arawa. And both of us are proud of our heritage, our culture, and who we are. It’s special to be able to say that. Unfortunately, it’s unique in the world to find Indigenous people in positions of responsibility like this.
With the arrival of Covid, you became a part of the Epidemic Response Committee. Perhaps that’s offered a glimpse of another, and less adversarial, political system. Do you think we should see more of that?
Yes, we do need to see more of it. But it actually happens now. What people see of parliament is mostly Question Time which is a show put on for one hour of a 14- or 15-hour day. But, if the public watched select committees (which are broadcast online), they’d often see MPs working collegially.
There is contention, of course. But all the MPs, whatever their party, bring their expertise to the committees — and they do work co-operatively. It’s an important process, and it’s fundamental to democracy in New Zealand.
What would you say has been your most satisfying mahi in your six years there?
I got to work with Winston in foreign affairs and I got to work with Shane in the Provincial Growth Fund. And both of them have been highlights. The foreign affairs role has meant representing New Zealand in trade negotiations overseas and greeting new leaders from around the world.
And the PGF has meant being able to check in with communities around the country, seeing what they may need to help them come out of their decline — and giving them a hand to turn things around. Both of those jobs have been satisfying — and amazing.
Because of these jobs, should I assume that you’ve been able to upgrade your car — or at least to get bigger Kenwood speakers pumping the music you need to keep your spirits up?
Politics isn’t the way to become well-to-do. So I’m still in the house I was in when I first was a teacher. And I still drive the same car. So how’s that?
What car are you driving?
An old 2000 Subaru Legacy wagon.
The most stolen cars in South Auckland.
Well, they used to be, didn’t they?
I know you’ve taken to trail biking. But I hear that you’ve bunged yourself up a few times.
Yes, I have. Broken quite a few bones. I used to be a half-decent mountain biker, although I was better at coaching it when I was at Boys’ High. But, yeah, too many crashes. Broken elbow socket. Broken collarbone. Been knocked out completely.
And my eyes are getting stuffed, so I can’t transition between light and dark in the forest. So I don’t go mountain biking anymore, even though I’m in Rotorua in the best place in the world for mountain biking. It’s a sad situation.
What do you do now to get that adrenaline rush?
In Wellington, I try and keep up with Alfred Ngaro and Stu Nash in the gym. Yeah. I love my weights. But it’s a challenge, especially down at parliament where you’ll start at 8am and then finish at anywhere between 10.30 and midnight, if you’re lucky. So they’re long, long days. And you rarely get the time you need for exercise.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Fletcher, and I wish you well in the election and that New Zealand First can confound the polls at least one more time. Congratulations on your career thus far.
Look. I’ll go on the record and predict that we’ll be back. And we’ll carry on working hard for Māori, for Pākehā, for New Zealand.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.