For many years, the National Party hasn’t had a strong Māori voice of its own. It half-pai borrowed the voices of the Māori Party in the 2014–2017 term when Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox were in parliament. And, over the last three years, it’s had a leadership group with some Māori whakapapa through Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett. But their behaviour never came close to overcoming the impression left by Don Brash and John Key that equity for Māori shouldn’t be a priority. Perhaps that will change under the leadership of Judith Collins. If so, it looks as if the initiative will have to come from Shane Reti and Harete Hipango. Here’s Dale getting to know Harete.
Kia ora, Harete. With the election looming, and you being one of the more prominent National MPs, there’s a good deal of interest in your background.
Tēnā koe, Dale. First, I should explain that I’m from what they used to call a “mixed marriage” back in the 1950s. That’s when Dad (Hoani Hipango) met Mum (Eileen Shaw) a third-generation Pākehā New Zealander with an Irish-Scottish-Celtic heritage.
They were both in the New Zealand air force and they met at Shelly Bay here in Wellington, but they moved up to Whanganui, to Putiki marae, where my two brothers and I were born and nurtured and shaped.
Harete, the name I carry, is the name of a tupuna. And Makere comes from my mother’s younger sister, Margaret. So that’s me. Harete Makere Hipango.
Most of us, me included, have cross-cultural parents, although, back in the day, that often raised eyebrows and caused some issues. Did you ever find either of your parents uncomfortable in the company of each other’s whanaunga?
No. That wasn’t a problem because I think Mum had felt alienated from her family, and she lived her lifetime among, and was warmly embraced by, our Whanganui whānau in the Putiki village settlement.
The Putiki area had been not just colonised but “religionised” as well. Our whanaunga in the marae settlements further up the river were all Catholic. But the Anglicans had arrived in Putiki, at the mouth of the river, before the Catholics.
Mum came from a Pākehā Catholic family, but that was no problem because, although Putiki was Anglican, it’s always been multi-denominational. Our marae was all-encompassing of our river whanaunga and their beliefs — be that religious or spiritual, or tūturu Māori.
Putiki has always been the central gathering point for the diversity of who we are as Māori. That’s the unifying factor for us even though we have different tikanga and practices and beliefs.
Your dad had that air force background, but your family, so I understand, were farmers, too.
Yeah, we were, with what land was left with the family. Putiki is close to the city, but it was very much a small rural community. So my background was rural and urban. And, on my father’s maternal line, there was a family farm up in Otaihape — in the Ngāti Whitikaupeka and Tama-Kopiri hapū rohe.
That was land held by my great-grandparents and carried on through that line. So we worked the land any spare time that we had. Not that we had much of that because school and sport took up so much of our time.
But I was often with Dad, moving the sheep, or grubbing thistles in the paddocks at home in Putiki, or mustering up on the farm in Taihape, or in the shearing shed. So it was a background that wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it was one that instilled a work ethic in us.
That’s the influence of your farming background. But what about the influence of the military background of your parents?
Like many Māori, the military influence has been very strong in our family. It probably harkens back to colonial settlement days when we were fighting warrior people. One of my tupuna, who is well-known in the Whanganui-Taranaki region, was Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, also known as Major Kemp.
He was born in the 1820s and became a pro-government, colonial officer. But, after giving service for the Crown, he retreated from that and became staunchly tūturu Māori, tūturu Whanganui. He focused on preserving our tikanga and our values, but also on retaining our land.
Those who are familiar with our history will know of the “Kemp poles” which were the land markers indicating that the Crown should not encroach past these poles — that these were the boundaries of land to be retained by our people.
So that’s when my military history, in a colonial sense, started. And it’s just carried on through the generations. My two brothers, both older than me, were senior military officers. Hoani was in both the New Zealand and British navy, and then the New Zealand air force. And Waata — my deceased brother, Lieutenant Colonel Waata Hipango — was the commanding officer for the New Zealand Defence Force in Singapore in 1991, and was killed in service there.
Of course, many of us are affiliated to soldiers in the 28th Māori Battalion and we share our people’s pride in their service in World War Two.
Thank you for mentioning your brothers. It’s touching to learn of their service and of Waata’s passing. Moe mai, moe mai.
Whanganui has a reputation for being a redneck town. Home of the colonisers who took so much from our people, and who set in motion the colonisation process that’s still part of our 2020 reality.
I’ve lived five, coming up almost six, generations of this Whanganui environment. But, on the positive side, we now have a society where there are many more liberal people. I think the new term being bandied around is that they’re “woke”. And they’ve come to be aware of the need for helping Māori and seeing us as a Treaty partner.
Yet there’s still casual as well as blatant racism. It carries on inter-generationally. It’s nothing new, Dale. But it builds resilience in us. We’re tolerant — probably too tolerant. But we’ve been learning how to navigate and how to turn the tide. And we now have more people who are aware of the reality of racism and know that it’s not acceptable. Never has been.
In my teenage and early 20s onwards, I’d been proactive in that space. But there’s been a tendency to judge me by how I sound, how I speak, how I look. I don’t look Māori enough. I look too Pākehā. I sound too Pākehā. All my life, I’ve been judged that way by people before they know my name or learn who I am.
But I’ve been carrying on what my forebears did. Carrying on the duty of service, the duty of leadership. Aiming to influence and shape things for the better, for our time. And knowing that there are others who will come after and pick up that mantle — who will carry on the struggle and continue the whawhai.
You wouldn’t have been old enough, though, to be taking part in some of the big protest movements in the 1970s.
No. But I remember Whina and the Land March in 1975. I wasn’t part of that. I was too young. But I would’ve loved to be part of that with my aunties when the marchers came through to Rātana pā and down on to Wellington. I wasn’t part of the Bastion Point occupation in 1977–78 either.
The first protest movement where I was involved is one I remember very clearly. That was Moutoa Gardens, or Pakaitore, in Whanganui — and that was the motivator and driver for me to go and study law. That’s because I saw the injustice and the unnecessary police force that was used against the protesters.
That was on Waitangi Day in 1981. I was 16, and there was a peaceful gathering of Māori outside the gardens. They had placards and signs. There was no volatility whatsoever. However, for some reason, the police saw fit — possibly under instruction — to move in and use physical force to push them back.
It was totally unnecessary, in my view. There was no threatening or intimidating behaviour from the protesters. Well, it may have been intimidating for those who, for the first time in Whanganui, were seeing Māori gather together with radical protest banners and placards. But it was an overreaction by the police.
Then, in 1995, there was the Pākaitore land occupation for 79 days. I was part of that, although at that time, I was a young lawyer working in the court. For me, that was a period fraught with conflict. And I got knocked around physically by the police, by the courts, during my time as an officer of the court. But what has come from that, of course, is resilience in staying steadfast in the pursuit of making things better.
Then, in 2004, I came down to Wellington for the Takutai Moana foreshore and seabed protest march. That was shortly after Tariana had crossed the floor. I went on that march with my youngest daughter Roimata, who is now 22.
Harete, let’s leap forward to the present where, in the wake of your three years as a National MP serving the Whanganui electorate, you’re in what looks to be a safe seat.
I don’t think anything is safe in politics, Dale. But this has come about because my predecessor, Chester Borrows, asked me to stand in 2017. He knew of my work behind the scenes — and he suggested several times that I should come into politics.
Three years ago, when I first stood, my majority was only 1700 votes. Not surprisingly, that had dropped when Chester retired because he’d been there for 12 years. So I need to keep working at ground level and build the support for me and National.
What prompted your leaning towards the Nats?
A good many Māori politicians in the early days leaned towards National and the party’s values because those values included mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga. And I see my role within the party as holding fast to those values and seeing that they shape the government’s policies.
The thing about National as opposed to Labour, I believe, is that we get things done. We set targets and we make progress. It may not always be perfect, but some of our work has been good for our people. And we have two strong Māori voices in parliament now that Dr Shane Reti is there — and, quite properly, he has been promoted. He knows his stuff, he’s a health practitioner, and he will be the Minister of Health in time.
And I’m also here in my privileged position with a level of influence within the National party. That’s because Judith Collins has promoted me into the shadow cabinet as the shadow attorney-general and with the responsibility for Treaty negotiations, Māori-Crown relations and Māori tourism. I’m no longer on the backbench.
In your three years in the big house, have you developed a liking for the place?
It’s not so much about the big house. It’s about the people. I’m here because the people of Whanganui elected me to be here. I’m in a general seat. I’m not in a Māori seat. And it’s not easy for a Māori to secure a general seat.
But I was born into a whānau that has that mantle of leadership. And, for some reason, my elders, my parents, chose me to accompany them not only to all the hui at the marae but also over in the Pākehā community. So that’s what I’ve been nurtured and shaped within.
I’m a woman in my mid-50s, and I’ve come into this place quite late in my life. But I come into it with a wealth of experience. I worked in the shearing sheds and in the freezing works. Did several other jobs when I was a law student. Then I worked in the courts. I didn’t go into corporate law where the money was big. For me, it wasn’t about money.
Instead, I spent a year or two working for Māori Affairs and then became a lawyer in the criminal courts, then in the family, mental health, and youth justice courts. I worked in the hospitals at governance level as well.
But I also specialised in child welfare work. I worked within the government organisation as it was known at the time — the Children, Young Persons and their Families Service which has been rebranded as Oranga Tamariki. So I know how that place functions as well as knowing the dysfunction that’s associated with it.
You’ve also had a lot to do with Tariana Turia, which isn’t at all surprising because Putiki and Whanganui is her home patch, too.
Yes. We keep in touch and, through the years, I’ve worked with Tari and George, especially back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. We set up the first Māori health organisation. And it’s still going to this day. It’s Te Oranganui Iwi Health Authority (TOIHA). We set up an iwi law centre, too.
So I’ve worked on the ground and I know these places and spaces. I know how our people are, and how they think. And I know the hardships they have. I’m not a textbook politician. And I’m not the kind of politician who fits into what may be the conventional view of someone in the National Party team. I come with the width and the breadth and the depth of a life of diversity and experience.
Should we get into government, I will be in cabinet, and I will be able to use my voice to affect and influence. Usually, not with a loud voice. That’s not the way that I operate. I’ve learned over the course of time that there are other ways to navigate turbulent waters — and it’s not necessarily with more turbulence.
And, if you do make it into power, would you be inclined to reach out to the Māori Party as an ally?
It’s for the people to decide in another four weeks who should govern. But I’m aware of the importance for the Māori Party to have a voice. And that’s a challenge that the Māori Party face at the moment.
I understand the politics that’s associated with this, but the Māori Party have made it very clear that they will not work with the National Party and that they’ll go with Labour. So, should any of their candidates be elected into parliament, that may be something for them to reflect on.
What could appeal to them is that a National government doesn’t dictate and control our people. We aim to enable and empower. Not to dictate.
Naturally, I do hope to get back in, because I’ve only just set the foundation over the last three years. A number of Māori don’t openly talk about supporting National because there’s the stereotype of a National voter. But there are a lot of Māori who do vote National — and will carry on doing so.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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