John Tamihere has been one of our more colourful and provocative politicians (and broadcasters) over the last couple of decades. And, some time back, his popularity and talent prompted a number of commentators to predict that he was on his way to becoming the New Zealand Prime Minister. But, in the course of his six years in parliament (1999–2005), he was inclined to speak his mind too forthrightly for the comfort of his Labour Party colleagues — including Helen Clark. So the prospects of JT ever being the PM nose-dived sharply, and he turned back to his work with the Waipareira Trust. He’d had success there before as the CEO — and that success is continuing, as he explains in the course of this discussion with Dale Husband.
Kia ora John. Let’s start by glancing back at your childhood — and seeing what the strongest influences in your life have been.
First, there’s been a strong Irish influence through my Pākehā, Catholic mother. Through her commitment to her faith, she got through a lot of tough moments. Like when she married my father and her family disinherited her.
That was solely because of the racism at that time with her family not believing in mixed cultural, mixed ethnic marriage. But out of that came 12 children, and she exposed us to the Catholic faith which, in our darkest moments, gave us the confidence in ourselves to get through things.
She was an outstanding person in that regard. Also, because she was put down for marrying my father, she was always very defensive of us in case others might look down on us and on our mixed blood parentage. She was a marvellously well-read woman for her era. She was always able to assist us with our homework, whereas other parents struggled to do that.
Then there was the old man. Well, they were hewn out of rock and stone in his generation. He was just a big, tough, hard man, so he brought up his boys in a world where there was black and white — and nothing in between. In his world, you got out of bed, you worked for your family and you worked for your community. So his work ethic was ingrained in us.
You and I have grown up in a world where much has changed. And one of those changes is that it’s easier now, or more important perhaps, to be proud of being Māori.
Well, Dale, you and I were born nearly 60 years ago when being Māori wasn’t sexy and fashionable. You’re always put down and there was nothing positive about being part of an ethnic indigenous population. Out here in West Auckland, there was no language, no Māori culture.
So we’ve come a long way in a short time — and my kids were some of the pioneering babies when the kōhanga reo and the kura kaupapa were being set up out here at the Hoani Waititi marae. We helped lead that change.
I was up there at Bastion Point on the issues that counted. And I marched against the Springbok tour in 1981. So I’m happy for our children to be beneficiaries of that activism and struggle — happy that they’ve been bequeathed a far better platform than we ever had.
You’ve been known for some years for your efforts, one way or another, to help with the emancipation of the tangata whenua. And I get the impression that you feel there’s something fabulous about being Māori.
When people are treated badly and when they’re constantly told they don’t amount to much, it’s natural for them to search for what is good about themselves. And that’s what has happened to Māori. When you come off such a low base, you don’t want your children feeling inferior solely because they have Māori blood.
So there’s a driving force in us to counter those who want to put us down. It’s not a matter of being arrogant. But we have a right to delight in who we are and what we are and where we’ve come from, and in how we’ve come through so many struggles.
Your academic path has included nailing a law degree — and, I imagine, has also included a fair bit of reading apart from law textbooks.
Yes. I was greatly taken with several George Orwell books. Not just Animal Farm and 1984, but also Coming Up For Air which isn’t nearly as well known. And I read Karl Marx and Lenin as well. Another writer I turned to was Milton Friedman who was one of the great economic thinkers at the time I was growing up.
So I was lucky enough to get out of the drudgery of West Auckland Avondale by having a mother that supported us in reading. And, through reading, I got vistas into other people’s worlds.
Then I started looking at our own politics — at the great Labour government that came in after the Depression in the 1930s and revolutionised New Zealand’s view of itself. And our country embraced the view that all our kids deserved a fair go when it came to education and housing and sustenance.
So the values of the great Labour party leaders from Michael Joseph Savage on were significant in my family, because we were a very strong Labour family. And we had a particularly strong bond with that side of the political fence because Labour was the first to treat Māori as equal citizens.
Some would say, though, that the welfare system has disadvantaged our people.
Well, it did do a great disservice to us in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s because it was a kind of entrapment — and it led to a handout mentality that a number of our people still have. But it’s the way in which welfare has been handed out that’s at fault. It’s not whether welfare is right or wrong. Welfare is right for those in big difficulty.
But the problem is when welfare is handed out by third party interests who don’t give a stuff about the people they’re handing it out to. It’s no good when it’s just a straight commercial transaction by someone who doesn’t give a damn about the people getting the welfare. That’s the thing that’s got to change.
The path you took, so I understand, was secondary schooling at St Peter’s and then Auckland University where you did your law degree and majored in commercial law. But there was quite a bit going on at varsity in those days, wasn’t there?
Yeah. I first went on the Auckland University campus in 1979 — and that was when a hit team arrived and bashed the engineering students who, if you recall, were making a mockery of our haka. I wasn’t a part of that but I was a part of the kaupapa and the kõrero on the campus. And we worked out pretty quickly that we had to organise ourselves.
So we organised a Māori university students’ association in each campus up and down the country. And that’s where the great thinkers of our era, like Ranginui Walker, Pat Hohepa, and Syd Jackson were starting to shape a far more militant response to the way Māori had been treated.
Then the protests against the Springbok tour in 1981 helped us develop our organisational capacity around the country. This was pre-internet and pre-mobile phones. But we’d had more than enough of the theft and confiscations being legitimated by a Pākehā parliament.
Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans and others were on campus then and it was an outstanding time to start articulating the arguments against West-European, Judeo-Christian thinking that had made my father feel inadequate and insecure. He and his father and so on just couldn’t think their way through it.
But, at university, we woke up to the fact that Māori had been badly wronged and no longer needed to carry on feeling second-class. We felt we had to reclaim a whole bunch of things. So, it was a marvellous time to be on campus in the late 70s, early 80s.
Then the clampdown of “Muldoonism” gave way to the light of “Langeism”. And, while that brought in one of the worst consequences for us since colonisation — and that’s Rogernomics — it was still an exciting, inspirational period to be on campus and be a Māori asserting our mana.
No doubt there were a whole lot of other tauira who’ve gone on to assume pretty prominent positions in te ao Māori — and have had some significant influence.
Naturally, a number of people come to mind. Like Toni and Pene Waho from Palmerston North who started their own kōhanga reo, and a wharekura. The Wano whānau, out of Wellington, who married into the Hond family in Taranaki and became the backbone of the renaissance of Taranakitanga.
A number of people have never been given the mana that they should’ve had. Like Dunn Mihaka, who had his own ferocious and fearless way of articulating the issues. He was in this period. Uncle Syd Jackson and his wife, Hana, were there too. Hauraki Greenland, the president of our students’ association, was another. Donna Gardiner as well. And there was Atareta Poananga, who turned her back on Foreign Affairs, where she had tremendous credentials, and became an activist.
But in rattling off the names of a few, I’m doing a disservice to the many because there are a number of people I’ve missed.
And some of them are Pākehā. At the time I was on campus, we had had one of the greatest schools of history in Indigenous writing and thought. They were leading edge. Keith Sorrenson, Keith Sinclair, Hugh Laracy, Judith Binney, and then later there was Claudia Orange. And their writing had a special power because it was white writers spelling out our brown history — which made it far more believable than if a John Tamihere was telling the story. Particularly if it’s bro history.
These Pākehā historians were outstanding. Joan Metge was another. You couldn’t get a better, more wonderful person. And Bruce Biggs made a great contribution by getting the Māori faculty on its way.
You’ve made spectacular progress, too, in establishing and developing Waipareira. But, before we go there — although this is a painful subject that you and I rarely discuss — I’d like you to touch on the efforts you made in trying to help David, one of your brothers, when he was in serious trouble with the law. At the time, you were a young lawyer. What impact did all that have on you, John?
I could’ve been buried by it. Our family was not well-off, and here was a murder case that took the nation by storm. It headed the news bulletins day in and day out. We had a second commercial TV channel starting up then, so there was intense competition to get the scoop on the story.
And there was so much news media and police resource being poured into finding out who David Wayne Tamihere was, who his family was, how violent his father might have been … and all the rest of it.
So, you’re a working class family who haven’t got much resource, and you’re having to defend yourself from search warrants being executed when the kids get home from school, when they’re going to bed and at three o’clock in the morning on consecutive nights.
You’re worked over by the state big time, in the hope that perhaps someone in the family would be able to take a confession from the brother and say: “Yes. He did it.”
Because I was a lawyer, there was a perception in the wider family that I had a money tree out the back. Not true unfortunately. But a lot of things fell on my shoulders. And we’d just had our first baby, bought our first house, had our first mortgage. And mortgages in those times were double digits, if you recall.
I’d been made the youngest ever regional manager of the Department of Māori Affairs — and everything was going well for me when that story broke. So I just had to hunker down and try as best as I could to support the brother. But, in supporting the brother, I had to support my father and mother, who were greatly scarred by it. As were the victims’ families. You can’t ever walk away from the acknowledgment that two babies were taken away from two families. There are no winners in these things.
Turning now to Waipareira and to the vision and the energy that made it possible to develop an urban Māori authority. It must’ve taken a lot of energy because there was precious little in the way of resources. But there was another element too — the support you had from the old people. Your style has always been to take them along with you, hasn’t it?
Well, there was a period when our elders were being pushed to one side, and when the young activists saw them as sell-outs. They were never sell-outs. They just weren’t skilled enough to defend themselves and articulate their views. They were quite mesmerised by the white man.
So when I kicked off at Waipareira, I knew there were a number of elders out there who weren’t being respected and honoured, and who needed the right to commune as they had when they were being brought up among their kin in their own tribal homelands. So I set up our roopu kaumātua and called our elders together, anyone 65 and over in the west, to meet and share the stories of their upbringing.
The beauty of Waipareira is that it’s pan-tribal. We don’t care what your tribe is. Or what your religious denomination might be. Or anything else. The beauty of our kaupapa is that there’s room for anyone. And having the elders there brought a serenity, a calmness, and a dignity that had been missing for some time.
They have a luncheon once a month just to commune with one another. And there’s line dancing and trips back to their homeland so aunties and uncles, who’ve lost contact with their whānau, can be reconnected. And, if they’re now living in a council flat down the road, they can see that they still count, and they still have mana. They just need to know that we care for them. So we’ve put in place that system — and I’m very proud of it.
One of your other successes with Waipareira is the way you’ve been able to gain access to pūtea, to funding, that Māori organisations previously hadn’t been able to get at — and that the Pākehā establishment had been monopolising. But that Waipareira development suffered when you detoured into parliament. In the long run, though, that parliamentary experience may have given you a surer touch when you resumed control out west.
I’m greatly enriched by my time in parliament. I don’t have a lot of regrets in my history, but I do have regrets. It’s not often that a guy from my background gets to be a cabinet minister. That didn’t come by consent or by offer. I had to fight my way in there. But then I didn’t get taken out by Labour’s opposition. Not by National or the Act party. I got taken out from behind. By Labour.
But the point is, I’m greatly more enriched, more educated, more knowledgeable for that political experience — and that’s been shown by what we’ve been able to achieve since I came back to Waipareira.
It was close to being shut down and placed into statutory management by the Inland Revenue Department. Our organisation was at the top of its game when I left to become an MP.
It owned 50 percent of the Westgate Shopping Centre and 32 acres around its own marae. All that land went. The shares in Westgate went. All our land holdings went. The losses were substantial. Just amazing. Was I angry at that? Course I was. But to cut a long story short, the bones out here in the West Auckland community are so strong, that it was able to be rebuilt very quickly.
Certainly the kaupapa seems to be going from strength to strength. But what do you now foresee for Waipareira and for te iwi Māori?
Well, Waipareira will lead the fight for an acknowledgement that the second migration occurred. The second migration was from our rural homelands into the cities. And that migration begat, and rightly so, a new and dynamic culture. It’s the culture of the mataawaka people, who never forget who they are, but have to live in their present-day reality, which is West Auckland.
So the marae is Hoani Waititi, but the iwi is Waipareira. We don’t have one eponymous ancestor as other iwi do, and rightly so. But we have, above all, our founding fathers and mothers from a range of tribes who brought us together to rejoice in our diversity and our tribalism rather than wallow in our differences.
That’s a big difference. And the sooner that iwi leaders get the fact that we’re not in competition — and that, without us, they would’ve been in trouble — the better off we’ll be. Out of urban activism came every piece of legislation that changed the face so that they could have the iwi cheque book.
It’s not about an either-or. It’s about them acknowledging that a second migration occurred. That the great marae, the great first kōhanga and kura and wharekura, came from the activism in urban Auckland.
That’s all we need. Then we need to move on. And so Waipareira will be at the forefront of leading that with MUMA (Manukau Urban Māori Authority) and a few others. And then we’ll get over the mindset where it’s iwi only, and no one else counts.
It is iwi. I am very strongly Ngāti Porou. But, here in Auckland, my kids and my mokopuna wouldn’t be strong in their Māoritanga if it weren’t for a pan-tribal marae called Hoani Waititi.
Kia ora. You sound like you’re optimistic and have some confidence about where we’re heading as a people, as a nation. What do you foresee for tangata whenua in the years ahead?
If our leadership doesn’t parody the worst excesses of Pākehā leadership, where the chasm between the rich and poor grows ever larger — and if they don’t pick up the ugly trappings of office that the Pākehā have, I think we’ll do extraordinarily well.
But there’s a fear that not enough of our people are being engaged in our conversations over our economic, social, political and therefore cultural drive. It’s one thing to get up on stage and do kapa haka. And it’s one thing to learn the reo. But it’s quite another step to be engaged and active in the economic and social prosperity of your tribe.
And so, if we can adopt a different economic model from what Pākehā have at the moment, and if we can crack that one, then I think the solutions are there.
But you know what? The beauty about you and me is that we’ve now got mokopuna, so we can leave some problems for them. We can’t solve them all in our generation, bro.
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