“I don’t leave bitter. I leave feeling very proud about the achievements that I’ve made.” — Nanaia Mahuta, who came into parliament as a 26-year-old in 1996, talking to Jack Tame on Q + A.

After 27 years as an MP, Nanaia Mahuta is stepping aside from national politics after losing the Hauraki Waikato electorate to Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi Clarke from Te Pāti Māori. Last Sunday, she spoke with Q+A’s Jack Tame about the highs and lows of her time in politics, what comes next, and what lessons she took from Labour’s loss in the election.

 

Nanaia: Well, democracy and the voters have spoken, so we have to accept the outcome, even though it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for. But I get a chance to go home after 27 years of service, which has been an absolute privilege.

And I’m doing a lot of reflection about my time in parliament — the ups and downs, and also the last election and what we can learn from it.

Jack: What can you learn from that?

Well, I think social media has played a significant part — and it shows that people are consuming their information from different places, where previously it used to be mostly just the newspaper.

We have to be alert to that. Also, in the Māori electorates, a younger vote did turn out, so we need to be aware that Māori voters are young and they’re looking for something new. What they value has to be clear and different. And you have to accentuate where you differ. People are looking for hope and vision and leadership. Those things, taken together, give us some salient learning points.

Do you think that Labour played to the centre too much?

The centre vote goes with its primary interests, whatever that looks and feels like.

But what we needed to do is speak to our values and the things that we stand for. And we needed to assure our core vote that we were continuing with the type of progress that was going to be good for them — for working people but also for people who have aspirations for the future of the country. Then we needed to offer a vision for where we want to take the country.

What might that alternative have been?

There was a focus on bread-and-butter issues. But perhaps we didn’t accentuate it in a way that people felt we were hearing how people were hurting.

Perhaps there’ll be some reflection on that particular issue. But also, given that the times are forecast to get a lot harder, the aspiration part is, therefore: “How are we going to address the bread-and-butter issues but still seek out the types of opportunities that will guarantee people jobs, better wages, without compromising the environment — and also continue to be progressive around our aspirations for Māori, for Pasifika, and for our diverse communities?”

Tax?

Yeah, tax. I think that’s been a point of reflection. Taking GST off food didn’t really speak to the voters, and that was shown to be the case. Fundamentally, going down a road where we tackle systemic challenges within our tax system means we need to go back to the drawing board on the capital gains tax.

What was it about Te Pāti Māori that brought out so many younger Māori voters?

I think the message of “Aotearoa Hou” spoke to a new generation. What that represents in real terms, I think, is yet to be determined. But younger voters got out. And social media platforms did have an influence on certain demographics — and the young voters were an area where we saw social media platforms playing their part.

Do you think Te Pāti Māori have the experience and strategy to be able to work the levers of power within parliament?

Well, they’re sitting on the opposition benches, so they don’t have any access to the levers of powers except being a part of a strong opposition.

You’ve brought up social media a couple of times. Outside of the ways in which social media was used to connect with young Māori voters, what do you mean by the other influences it had in the election? Are you talking about opposition to Labour?

I think that was one element. I certainly did experience a lot of personal opposition through various social media platforms. And, also, people were consuming their information from very diverse channels. Perhaps we underestimated a source of truth that would counter some of that mis- or dis-information. That’s something to be alert to, in the future.

And I think that all political parties (and even political commentators and the media) have to turn their minds to greater integrity in the information that people consume to help them make decisions, especially during election time.

Labour was hammered by critics and opposition parties for policies like co-governance and the Māori Health Authority but, at the same time, many Māori voters have supported a party which has an even stronger stance than Labour when it comes to a Tiriti-centric Aotearoa. Where does that leave Labour’s Māori caucus?

Well, Labour’s Māori caucus is in a strong position, because it represents Māori interests across a broad platform of issues, with the Treaty at its heart. But, if we think about the working population and the need to protect workers’ rights, then the Labour Party is still that party, in my mind.

We’re also rebuilding our team, so we’ve got new talent there. We want to grow that talent, and we want to ensure that we’re fit for the fight that we’ll need to secure the confidence of voters, become the government again, and take our country forward.

Do you feel like the Labour Māori caucus made sacrifices or compromises in the interests of the wider team?

When you’re in politics, compromise and sacrifice go hand in hand with politics. And I think the incoming government will learn that very quickly.

If Labour’s Māori caucus had to make compromises within that wider caucus, and you look at the result of this election, was it worth it?

If you look at our achievements, absolutely. And we wouldn’t recoil from that. We have a dedicated day to recognise our first Māori public holiday that acknowledges mātauranga Māori. That’s Matariki. Then there’s been our support for Māori wards, establishing the Māori Health Authority and focusing on equity of health outcomes for Māori, for Pacific, for remote communities and for rural and elderly.

And there’s been our support for te reo development, to the point that it’s beginning to thrive in ways that are shaping the fabric of our nation. Those are just some of the positive gains — and there are many more.

You entered parliament in 1996, so you’ve been both the baby of the House and the mother of the House. Take me back to 2004. Can you talk us through how you navigated the debate over the Foreshore and Seabed Act?

It was difficult, because Labour was the government at the time and challenging decisions were made by our Attorney-General which, as a Māori MP in the government, we had to defend and contest within our own whare.

Then there was the public backlash around Don Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi speech. And things were being inflamed racially at that time.

You asked me how I navigated it. I found it difficult. But I also knew that I had to use the political process and my understanding of the process to anchor in interests that would, to the extent possible, support the aspirations of my electorate. We still had outstanding claims for the Waikato River, for the West Coast harbours, and then there were other Treaty settlement claims that had elements that might have been impacted by the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

So I used the process, secured some gains, took myself off the list, put that mandate back to the electorate, and said: “Look, I think I’ve done the best that I can, but it’s up to you.” And they put me back in to keep doing the mahi — and I did that.

How close did you get to joining Tariana Turia?

Not at all. Various people have asked me whether I’d ever join the Māori Party. But that’s not something that I’ve given any thought to. I think fundamentally having a political party based on identity can be a challenging space.

I would hope that New Zealand is the kind of country that asks the big questions like: “What kind of national identity do we want to have? How do we bring Māori as Indigenous people, and the rest of New Zealand closer together rather than further apart? How do we articulate that? What’s the constitutional basis for all of that?”

That’s where I think much of the political discourse should be focused so that we don’t lose our way. We only have to look around the world to see how extreme opinions have not only dented the fabric of democracy but also dented the sense of nation-building, social inclusion and respect for greater diversity.

You’re saying you think a party that’s based on identity is potentially problematic?

I’m saying that it’s not something that I’ve entertained, because I know that Māori across New Zealand have diverse political views. And, while I get the fact that an Indigenous party is a positive reflection for New Zealand about how we’ve evolved, if that Indigenous party is never in a position to exercise influence over the way that the country can go, then what is the point?

You can’t just sit in opposition. And what I’ve experienced in my time of serving my electorate in parliament is that, unless you have those political levers to secure gains and promote policies and ideas that will take your people forward, why are you in parliament?

I think that’s going to be a big challenge for the Māori Party. It’s had at least two iterations of articulating its aspirations. I’m sure they’re thinking about that right now, and it remains to be seen how that evolves.

Do you think that Labour’s handling of the co-governance provisions in Three Waters contributed in any way to a sense that they were being sneaky about the concept of co-governance?

No. Not at all. The joint decision-making body that was established, made up of iwi and councillors, basically reflected what many councils already have. Could the messaging have been simpler? Yes. Absolutely. Could I have got more support from a broader range of senior ministers during the time of promoting those reforms? Absolutely.

You didn’t feel like you had the support within cabinet?

When people look back at the debate, at the passing of the legislation through the House, they’ll have seen that I was pretty much carrying all that load. It was recognised by Jacinda who, prior to her departure, said: “Look, you’ve carried a pretty hefty load. I want you to focus on Foreign Affairs.”

That was followed through by Chris Hipkins. And it was heavy going. We established a water quality regulator in Taumata Arowai, with the arrangements around the reform programme, done in two tranches of legislation, and initiated economic regulatory reform to get the whole system right. That was done over four to five years, which is a lot of heavy lifting.

How did it affect you not having the support you felt you needed?

Well, I think if I dwell too long on the support I didn’t get, then I wouldn’t do the things that I needed to do to make change happen. If you dwell on what’s not happening, rather than focus on what needs to be done, you become distracted. So I just carried on.

It must have affected you at the time.

It probably did, in all sorts of different ways. But, having been a minister and having observed other ministers, I didn’t want to be a minister who just sat on my hands and thought: “Nah, this is all too hard. I’ll take the easy path.”

You said that Jacinda had acknowledged the load you’d carried with those reforms. Could she have supported you in a more meaningful way earlier?

A critical assessment of her actions would show that, right from the beginning, she did support me at all key junctures. I have to acknowledge her leadership, all along, in supporting what I was trying to achieve.

Do you trust China to be a responsible international player?

They’d probably ask the same thing of us.

And what’s your answer?

You know, in a very complex and challenging environment, we have to navigate that relationship with care and consideration, because there are some big players in our region. Not just China. There’s the US too. And that requires vigilance and careful management.

And that’s why I use the analogy of the dragon and the taniwha. Because it’s not about being the biggest player in the field. Or the biggest dragon. Or taniwha. It’s understanding each other to the degree that you have a relationship that enables you to achieve some shared outcomes.

And I say that deliberately because, even when we sent the signal to our key exporters that they needed to diversify their export platform and not be totally reliant on China, after Covid, exports to China went up.

So, we’re kind of caught as a government, and as a nation, on what our exporting communities want as well — and so we have to manage this particular relationship with care.

And over time, we’re going to have to figure out how we relate to the new formation of the Global South interests across the Indo-Pacific. We’re going to have to be a lot more agile and vigilant in managing complex relationships.

Is it going to be a binary choice — US or China?

I’d hope not. And, in fact, if we look at the way in which the European states are trying to understand their own relationship with China, they’re de-risking their relationship rather than decoupling because they’re dealing with the same challenges. And we can’t have a world that has greater divides. We need to find ways to connect and work together.

So, documents released under the OIA show you rejected advice from MFAT officials on a tweet that you posted regarding the Middle East conflict. The advice you received was to send an initial tweet that acknowledged that the terror and rocket attacks originated in Gaza, and you rejected that advice and instead talked about conflict between Israel and Gaza. Why was that?

Yeah, once I got further information, I quickly clarified that and condemned the actions of Hamas. And there was a time delay in terms of when the information came through, when I saw it, and when the tweet went out.

But that said, we have, as a country and during my time as Minister of Foreign Affairs, drawn a line under some key statements. Firstly, condemn the actions of Hamas, and call for the unconditional release of prisoners held hostage by Hamas. We’ve supported Israel to defend itself in accordance with international law. We’ve also called for a humanitarian pause in order for humanitarian aid corridors to be opened up. And we’ve identified that the huge loss of civilian lives is unacceptable and is harrowing as continue to see this conflict unfold.

Was it a mistake to send that tweet?

Oh look, I can’t dwell on mistakes. We drew a line, as soon as we got more information, around condemnation of the actions of Hamas.

And, if you look at the statements of the UN Secretary General — although it’s not comparable — he too got pilloried for comments that were seen to be too soft, and then, again, he clarified those comments. So, if I get too caught up on original tweets based on information I had at the time, but have since clarified, then we’re focusing on the wrong thing, Jack.

Too many innocent lives are being lost . . . people are without food, water, energy or medical supplies. And we also need to ensure that there’s an acceleration of talks, real talks, around the two-state solution. And that’s got to be the absolute focus of any discourse that is happening right at this moment around Israel and Gaza. We are part of an international community that can bring pressure to bear on that course of action.

Would you support New Zealand becoming a republic?

Yes. And I’ve been on the record for a long time saying that that, in my view, is the direction we should be going. That’s if we can underpin that decision with a strong discourse around our constitutional arrangements and the place of the Treaty.

And what should that be? How would we go about navigating the place of the Treaty?

Probably with some difficulty. But it’s a far more productive place to have a conversation than a referendum on the Treaty. A referendum on the Treaty will mean that the majority of New Zealanders, potentially, might see no future for the Treaty in the future of our country.

Whereas a constitutional conversation around the place of the Treaty within the context of a republic is a healthy debate, and we should be opening those doors. It’s a long conversation but it could be a focused conversation.

So what you’re saying is that we’d use Te Tiriti and the principles of Te Tiriti to inform a constitution under a New Zealand republic?

Absolutely. Absolutely we would. And, you know, we’ll have academics, we’ll have iwi, we’ll have other New Zealanders who’ll want to open up a conversation that enables us to contemplate whether the Treaty should be a formal part of a written constitution or whether it should remain with some continued moral obligation alongside a formal constitution. Or some other kind of arrangement.

But the point is that it’s about: “How do we build a nation based on the foundation that we have inherited?” Not: “How do we ignore that foundation that we inherited?” I don’t think that path will ever serve us very well.

I want to finish up with some of your reflections on your parliamentary career. Is there a proudest moment or achievement?

That’d be difficult. I don’t think I’ve changed as a person. People who’ve known me since I started in parliament will say: “Sure, you’ve matured and gained a lot more information. But, essentially, your character as a person has remained the same.”

Which is an achievement for such a long period in parliament.

I don’t leave bitter. I don’t leave bitter. I leave feeling very proud about the achievements that I’ve made. And I’ve had two beautiful children along the way, and they’ve seen me grow and flourish, and I’ve seen them do the same. But I’ve also remained closely connected to my electorate and the relationships I’ve formed over a long period of time. And I’ll continue to honour those relationships.

But, as a person, I haven’t changed.

Is there something at the top of the list when it comes to unfinished business? Is there something you wish you had a little bit more time or support for?

I stayed true to the spirit of why I went into parliament at the beginning of the Treaty settlement process. It was to ensure that all the Treaty settlements across Tainui waka could be completed — and the only outstanding big settlement that still needs to be passed through the House is the Hauraki Collective settlements.

I’d love to see that happen so that the self-determination aspirations of the iwi within Tainui waka can be achieved — and then they can start working together to strengthen their aspirations within this part of the country.

When do you think we’ll have the first Māori elected prime minister?

Soon, I hope.

Is there someone in parliament that you think: “Oh, maybe . . . ?”

I don’t think we’re too far off that. I reckon we might be fairly close to our first elected Māori prime minister.

And how about you? You don’t seem like much of a thumb-twiddler. Have you thought about what the next few years might entail?

I’ve told whānau: “I’m going to take this time to do me, do my little family, rest, and unpack a lot of things in my mind — but also literally — and then let’s see what the new year brings.”

But I’m ready for a new chapter. And I’ll watch with interest the progress of the incoming new government — and of the opposition, because they have a responsibility to our democratic process to do their role really well.

And then, for the most part, doing mum stuff as well.

I hope you can enjoy that.

Oh, I will. I will.

This interview was screened on TVNZ’s Q+A programme last Sunday (November 19) and has been edited for clarity and length.

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