Rawiri Waititi has plenty going for him as the Māori Party candidate in this election campaign where he’s trying to persuade the voters in the Waiariki electorate that he’d be a much better bet than Tamati Coffey (who won the seat for Labour three years ago), or Hannah Tamaki (who’s best known as the co-leader of the Destiny church).
The Māori Party isn’t short of mojo or ideas under the leadership these days of John Tamihere and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. But it’s struggling for voter support after Labour scooped up all seven Māori electorates in 2017, which means it now boasts a Māori team who, in theory at least, is capable of delivering on Māori issues.
So the campaign is an uphill battle for Rawiri. But he’s from a whānau who’ve made progress against the odds. Like the man who gave his name to the Hoani Waititi Marae in Henderson. Or Aunty June, known on formal occasions as Dame June Mariu.
Here’s Rawiri talking to Dale.
Kia ora, Rawiri. You’re in the limelight now because you’re in the Māori Party’s team aiming to get at least a toehold in the government after next month’s election. But there’s so much we should touch on before we turn to politics. Like your family background for starters.
Tēnā koe, Dale. Well, I’m Rawiri Wikuki Waititi, born in Ōpōtiki into a family with firm links into Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou. It’s a whānau who’ve been pretty strong advocates for our tikanga and te iwi Māori.
One uncle was Hoani Waititi, who made a big impact in Māori education, as a teacher and also through his series of Te Rangatahi language books. Aunty June Mariu has been really influential, too, as a teacher and advocate for Māori in West Auckland.
I grew up in Whangaparaoa, in the eastern part of the Bay of Plenty. I was brought up not just by my parents, but by the whole village. And I came under the influence of my mother’s parents who were very committed to their reo Māori.
I was lucky enough to be brought up in the early ‘80s when the kōhanga reo were being set up. So that meant I had a good start with te reo and tikanga Māori, as well as having a close connection with the marae.
I went to primary school right there in Whangaparaoa, and then, when I was 13, I was sent to Auckland to go to Rutherford High School in Te Atatu. Lived with my Aunty June, and spent many years up there — and learned plenty because she was involved in so many things. Not just teaching, but netball, kapa haka, the Māori Women’s Welfare League, the Waipareira Trust, Te Puni Kokiri, and so on.
As a young fulla, you ripped into rugby, didn’t you? Kapa haka as well. With some success too, I understand.
The most success I had in rugby was making the North Harbour reps in the under-19s and then the Colts. But that went pear-shaped when other interests and kapa haka became my priority. And that worked out because I’ve now been with Te Whānau-ā-Apanui for the last 15 years or more, and in that time, we’ve had the good fortune to be the supreme winner at Te Matatini.
You’re a great singer and entertainer, too. How did you become so good on the guitar?
That comes from many a party with the whānau. The whānau just love singing anyway, so any party here on the coast is where you can learn how to play the guitar if you’ve got an ear for music.
But I’ve also been able to watch the great guitarists of the kapa haka world, like the Wehi boys, Howie Morrison Jr, and George Ria. I kind of idolised those fullas.
There’s the strumming and the singing but, in kapa haka, you’ve also got to make sure you’re driving energy through your whole group — and that takes some skill. At home, we were exposed to a whole lot of instruments, including the piano, because, when you’re rural, you gotta make your own entertainment.
As well as having all that skill, you also have this beautiful, rich, baritone voice. So you’re at home on stage. And no doubt you’ve been on stage with some other talented musos.
At Rutherford High, there was a boys’ group called, Euphony, with Lapi Mariner as the lead singer — and we had a great sound. Euphony used to do a lot of the promo songs for Mai FM. And we did the national anthem at one of the netball tests, around about 1995, when the Silver Ferns played England. So those experiences have helped shaped me as a performer — as has the influence of Bub and Nen Wehi.
Have there been performances when you’ve been especially proud?
Every time I take that stage, every time I watch our people walk up on stage, I feel a sense of pride. I think the feeling of being able to perform your culture, of being able to sing about who you are, about where you come from, about what we stand for. Just being the protectors and projectors of our Indigenous voice. I feel proud all the time, and I feel proud about those who are also doing the same whether that’s here in Aotearoa or overseas.
But there have been some occasions, some kaupapa where I’ve really felt the ihi and the wehi. Definitely at the tangihanga of Te Atairangikaahu. Then when we powhiri’d Willie Apiata back on to the marae in Te Kaha. Also when we took Willie Apiata up north.
Those are the times where I feel proud to be Māori. Proud to be who I am. Also proud to be able to hand this on to the next generation, so that they can stand unapologetically proud of being Māori.
Turning now to your work life. What have you been up to?
I went to teachers’ training college and worked as a teacher for a while. In adult education, too. I’ve also been a lecturer for Te Wānanga o Raukawa where I’d done a master’s degree in mātauranga Māori. I’ve also been working in the health and Whānau Ora social services sector, with Te Whānau o Waipareira. And I’ve done some work with Creative New Zealand, too.
I’ve done all sorts of things, to be honest — and I’ve been at home for the last eight or nine years, working in my iwi Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, across a whole lot of things. Sitting on a number of boards like land trusts and government and local council boards.
I recall the early days of Waipareira. And I’m picking that, at some stage, you worked there, and then stole the heart of their daughter, Kiri. How did that happen?
Yes. I stole a Ngāpuhi-Ngāti Porou-Waipareira princess. I married John Tamihere’s daughter. And now we’ve been together for the past 20 years. We’ve had an awesome marriage, with an awesome brood of five babies. And I’ve been fortunate enough that she agreed to move back to Whangaparaoa to bring up our babies. She’s my rock. She’s my best mate. And she’s my biggest support.
And the names of your brood?
Our oldest one is Taowaru Wikuki. Then there’s Huiarangi Te Aranga, followed by Aperahama Tataikoko. Next is Te Ohanui o Aperahama. And finally there’s Tumanako Rauhuia.
We’re lucky that they’re growing up where they’re exposed to a lot of things other kids are not — although they get a bit hōhā with this election hikoi that we’re on.
They look at their Facebook and see their cuzzies down the beach while they’re at a Māori Party hui. Or they see their cuzzies riding their horses while they’re at a tangihanga somewhere across the country.
But they’re being exposed to what it means to be Māori and what it is to continue this legacy.
I suspect that they’ll take their part in a bilingual Aotearoa.
As a country, we’re still a long, long way off that. But perhaps we’re moving towards being more culturally accepting of its Indigenous peoples and towards being more bilingual.
And that movement will be helped as more Pākehā come to recognise that it’s the tangata whenua who are the selling point for our country. It’s not the European culture. It is the Māori culture. It’s Aotearoa. It’s the Māori language.
You’ve come out publicly to advocate for a name change for the country. I don’t disagree. I find New Zealand, as a name, quite grating. What’s been the reaction to your kōrero?
Well, there’s been a mixed reaction. There’ve been Pākehā against it and Pākehā for it. Likewise Māori against and Māori for. Unfortunately, colonisation has done its job on our people — a bloody damn good job. So some Māori are quite happy with the way things are.
But there’s a generation of us coming through now — a kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa generation — who want something different, and want something more. And many Pākehā have no issue with that. So there’s talk. There’s a more receptive mood. And there’s a discussion going on.
But, of course, the language is in dire straits. Not as badly off as half of the 7,000 Indigenous languages left in the world. But not in great shape either, because only 20 percent of Māori can kōrero Māori, which means that’s only three percent of New Zealanders.
So we’ve got to do more. We’ve got to put the pou in the ground to ensure that Aotearoa is a Māori-speaking country, and that te reo Māori is not a language of the past but is becoming a living language for all of Aotearoa.
You must have done some serious thinking before you decided that standing for election was a move that you should take. Has there been some trepidation about throwing your hat into the ring?
That first came up after Parekura Horomia died in 2013 and my name was touted around as a viable Labour Party candidate for the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti seat. But Meka Whaitiri became the MP. And then, leading up to the 2017 election, I was sort of headhunted by Labour to stand for the Waiariki electorate.
But that didn’t work out and I’m glad that it didn’t because Labour doesn’t suit my values and principles — and the Māori Party is independent of any mainstream Pākehā party.
And not only that, but, as our people have been observing, a number of the Labour coalition moves over the past term have been abusive towards Māori. Such as the RMA “reforms” where consultation with hapū and iwi can be bypassed for shovel-ready projects. The Public Works Act is also doing its part to start drawing back some Māori land. And all through the Covid-19 response, our Māori MPs were silent.
So I couldn’t be a part of anything like that, and I think I’m in the right place now because it’s a space where I can be unapologetically Māori in everything that we do.
Politics is a strange game, a long-term game. Are you comfortable with what you’re standing for now and, if you’re unsuccessful, would you go again?
Absolutely. It’s successful because what we’re teaching our people and what we’re teaching our kids is that we must always stand and advocate for our people. So, regardless of the result, I’m teaching my babies, and many other babies across this country, that we must be brave and stand up for our people across every sector and across every leadership role to ensure that we have a voice.
If we can leave a mark, or if we can etch into the hearts of our people that there is somebody out there standing up for us and providing a strong voice, I’m happy with that. And I believe that the Māori Party must always be there to advocate for us in the political space.
In your role as the relationships manager for Te Whānau-ā-Apanui Rūnanga in recent years now, I assume you’re dealing with all sorts of organisations.
That’s true. But when you’re working in an iwi, you’ve got to do all sorts of things. From cleaning the toilets, to negotiating in the boardroom and with regional contacts, to then walking down the corridors of parliament to ensure that you can advocate for your iwi.
But whenever you’re working for Māori, you need to ensure that you hold on to the mana of your people. You must never compromise that. So Kiri and I have been working in that space for our rūnanga and our iwi. And we’ve been able to work our way into some pretty strong relationships across government agencies to ensure that we get our fair share of resource — although that’s often very minimal.
So that’s basically what the role is. But when Covid arrived and threatened the very existence of our people, we took on a little more authority. We closed the road.
That’s an example of the unapologetic stuff that Māori leadership needs to do at times.
You don’t have to accept Pākehā telling you what to do and what to say. When your people need to be protected, you just do it. Because that’s your job. That’s your responsibility. Regardless of your title.
Talking of leadership. One of the remarkable leaders of our time is JT — your father-in-law and the co-leader of the Māori Party, John Tamihere. How have you got along with him?
Oh yeah, we have our disagreements, but that’s what whānau do. Whānau have their disagreements, but it’s always respectful. And it’s been an amicable relationship through the 20 years that I’ve been part of the whānau.
What have you learned from him?
Well, I’ve probably learned to be relentless. And always to stand up for our people.
But I’ve also seen the dangers of shooting from the hip, so I’ve also learned that it’s best for me to connect my heart and brain before I open my mouth — and not follow his example. But, overall, I think John has been an awesome example of a leader for our people.
I hear that your favourite politician is not necessarily John. That it could be Winston.
You know what? We like somebody who can stand the test of time. And, regardless of Winnie’s politics and his policies, I admire his endurance. I admire what he’s been able to achieve in this last government term. And I admire his wit.
I don’t know whether he’ll get there in the election next month because it’s clear that it’s gonna be a struggle. But we should acknowledge his style and his achievements.
I notice that it’s your style to lace your kōrero with humour.
Well, the speakers who’ve impressed me on the marae are those who have the knowledge to recite whakapapa and to connect the iwi through that genealogy — and who also have the capacity to enliven the occasion with humour.
It’s the way to hold a crowd and also the way to get your message across. It’s not everybody’s preference, but it’s the style I prefer. You don’t want to bore people with “dry-as” kōrero, because, man . . . we’ve all had to put up with boring speeches that are too maroke for comfort.
You’re a wonderful advocate for Māori and the future generation of Māori leadership. Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
Well, as I’ve gone across the Waiariki electorate visiting schools and other groups, my message has been to never ever let anybody treat us like second-class citizens in our country. We must always act, always lift, and always stand as number one. Because we are tangata whenua.
And they can rest assured that our people have a strong advocate in me and all the other candidates in the Māori Party. Kia ora tatou.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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