Sandra LeeSandra Lee, as she acknowledges in this conversation with Dale, had a bit of cheek long before she had the political experience to go with it.

But that experience came in abundance — linking up, when she was still in her 20s, with Matiu Rata to help found Mana Motuhake in 1979. Chairing the Waiheke County Council. Leading Mana Motuhake as president and then party leader. Spending nine years in parliament, including time as a cabinet minister in the Labour-Alliance coalition government. Having a taste of the diplomatic world as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Niue. And being a sharp-eyed observer of the political talents and failings of others — as she is here.


Kia ora, Sandra. Now, from what I’ve learned through the years, you have a number of geographical connections. Wellington, of course, because of your three terms as an MP, the West Coast, Waiheke Island, Auckland, Niue, and now Whakatane.

Well, I was born in Wellington. My papa kāinga tūturu is Arahura Pā on the west coast of the South Island. I grew up in a tiny, two-bedroom Māori Affairs house that my parents built in the 1950s when the old Department of Māori and Island Affairs had trade training schemes and builders, and our young ones were trainees on their way to becoming tradesmen. And that, by the way, was a scheme that should be brought back.

My father, Bill Barber, was an Englishman. My grandfather, Charley Johnson, lived with us. So did my great-grandfather who was born in 1874, Tame Whakamaua Pihawai, from Kaiapoi Pā, until he passed away.

It was a very warm, loving home. We were poor, but we never, ever went hungry. The boil-up pot was always on, and my uncle Cyril, who was a fisherman, was always topping it up with crayfish. We had plenty of kai and plenty of laughs.

Along the street was a large number of relations from our pā in Arahura — kaumātua, kuia, aunties and uncles. There was another satellite in Upper Hutt where there was the Weepu family, the Tainui family, and others, too.

We used to gather regularly and often. And the grown-ups would have intense discussions, especially about our Māori land. There’d be people coming from the Māori Affairs department. Timber millers, too.

And it was very clear in that environment that there were injustices being perpetrated. Not only generally to our people, but specifically towards our own family members who were trying to deal with, for example, the injustice of peppercorn rentals.

By law, my hapū in Greymouth weren’t allowed to charge fair rents. The Māori Reserved Land Act said we were only allowed to get peppercorn rentals. So all these sorts of matters were under discussion, day and night, in the little whare that I grew up in.

You could call it overcrowding, I suppose. In all the years I was growing up, I never had the luxury of a bedroom. I didn’t mind, though, because we had the luxury of a house stacked with all of our whānau. People coming and going. And our old people opting to live with us, because my mum, Roka, was a favourite.

It was a wonderful, rich childhood. Lots of happy memories as I grow older.

And that Arahura whakapapa is reflected in your full name?

Yes. My full name is Sandra Rose Te Hakamatua Lee-Vercoe. And I carry with pride the middle name of my nanny, my taua, Roka Te Hakamatua Pihawai. But, very sadly, like too many of our people back then, she died of tuberculosis in her 40s. When I stood for parliament, and for local councils, I never put it on the ballot paper because, if my full name was spelled out, there’d be no room left for the tick.

Seeing that Arahura is a big part of your life, I’m sure pounamu must be as well.

Yes. I come from the pounamu river. To me, it’s the most beautiful river in the world — and it’s the best, too, because the rocks from our river adorn the necks of our people all over Aotearoa.

Myself included. I feel that there’s a power in them. Not everyone does, and some more than me. But I wouldn’t discount that power.

No. But we must bear in mind that it’s a finite resource. They’re not making any more of our pounamu, so we have to be very, very careful about what it’s made into.

I went to the Waitangi Tribunal in the early 1980s and complained about pounamu being used to make toilet roll holders. Pounamu carved into mice. Pounamu carved into golf club heads. That was very upsetting. It’s not like grass. It doesn’t keep growing. And what we create from our pounamu has to have tūturu cultural meaning.

I’ll tell you a little story about our awa and our pounamu. When people visit, it can be like gold fever. You can see it straight away. They’re hungry to get into the river and find themselves some pounamu. Especially our own people, of course. And good on them.

But there’s another rock in our river. All of the rocks in our river are tapu and beautiful. But this one is called serpentine. They’re big green rocks — and so, usually, when people see them, they think: Bingo! And they’ll be hauling a big rock up the riverbank.

We all know it’s not a pounamu. Usually the pounamu have a beautiful white-grey or rusty protective korowai. So, unless you have some experience and can tell by the weight or feel and wairua that it’s a pounamu, you can’t be sure that the green boulder you’re trying to put into the boot of your car isn’t actually a piece of serpentine.

There’s another story about our nannies down there. Back in the day, we’d have manuhiri from other iwi who’d visit — maybe a health group, maybe a kōhanga. If the nannies really liked you, they’d sprinkle pounamu along the river in places that were easy to find. Then they’d point those people in that direction. And if they weren’t so keen on the visitors, like politicians, well, they didn’t get that help.

Our nannies have always had their own special ways of making us feel special, haven’t they? But let’s turn to politics where you’ve invested so much of your energy — especially with Mana Motuhake and the Alliance.

Well, I think it’s impossible for any Māori not to grow up political. All of us. We’re all weaned at our nannies’ knees on stories of land that was confiscated and of the struggles of our people.

And, in that regard, my childhood was like that of many others.

Sitting in the Māori Land Court with my parents. Having to go to the Māori Affairs department about this or that. Watching my uncle, Whetu Tirikatene’s father, battling away in parliament and then coming back to report to our family in Wellington. All of those things generated within me a strong political interest.

Coupled with that, my mum married a Pākehā. My dad was born in London, and he was of Romany Gypsy descent — and they also were a marginalised people all over the world, especially in Europe. As my father always pointed out, the first people that Hitler burned in the concentration camps were Romany people living in Europe.

So, having a dad who’d come home from the war, and who’d had the trade union experience of the waterfront lockout in 1951 — well, that leaves its mark. You can’t grow up in a house that’s been through that without those stories being passed down. So, my interest and activities in politics were inevitable.

Finding a productive pathway in politics — as we’re seeing once again over the last week or so — isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have some guidance. How did you fare in that respect?

First and foremost, there was support from my family. My kaumātua. My parents. My hapū. But my greatest political mentor was the late, great Matiu Rata, the former MP for Northern Māori.

When I was a young radical and when Matiu was Minister of Māori Affairs, there were times at a hui when I’d stand up, cheekily, and say my piece. And he’d say: “Well, you made a good point.” And I’d be like: “Kia ora.” Then he might say: “But you’re a bit whakahīhī and you made that point the wrong way.” Or: “Have you thought about this?”

He gave me that kind of guidance — and he was a total inspiration. But beyond that support for me, was his role on the national stage, because he was the man responsible for creating the Waitangi Tribunal. The Tribunal and Treaty settlements were his brainchild. Were it not for the legislation that he brought in, we wouldn’t have been able to take our longstanding grievances and injustices before an independent tribunal. What a great man.

When he resigned from the Labour Party, I was a young woman on Waiheke Island. I was a nobody working in a little sewing factory on Waiheke. But I sent him a telegram saying: “Right behind you. Sandra Lee, Waiheke Island.”

And, oh my gosh. Same day, a telegram came back saying “Thank you”, and asking me to organise a hui for our people on the island, so that he could come and explain to them his reasons for leaving the Labour Party, and his intentions to found a Māori political party, “which I’m going to call Mana Motuhake.” So I did. We had a big hui. And I joined Mana Motuhake as a founding member. It’s the only political party I’ve ever belonged to.

He was a remarkable guy. And I understand that, during the 1951 watersiders lockout, he was the one who got the brown paper bag full of money from the Aussie unions.

He was. Years later, he told me he’d been a young seaman at that time. Back then, it was illegal to give money to the waterside workers who’d been locked out of their work on the wharves. This was New Zealand. You could be a nun delivering just a tiny little koha to your sister. Maybe ten bob or a quid. And you’d be breaking the law.

If you were another union or overseas, donating a koha to the union to help feed the Kiwi families, you were breaking the law.

Anyway, Matiu was on a ship that was running to Australia, and the union chose him to pick up a parcel over there. He was told not to open the parcel — or tell anyone about it. Just pick up this brown paper bag and, back here, take it to the union office. Which he did.

But he never saw the money — and was never told what was in the bag, so if he got caught, he could honestly say he didn’t know there was money in it. Didn’t know there was a large koha there from the Australian union. And what was clever, too, was that the authorities wouldn’t have suspected that a young Māori seaman would be entrusted with such a valuable parcel.

When we’re looking at New Zealand’s political system where Māori are trying to get traction, we see a Westminster system, a system that’s been imposed on us. Can you see a time when there’s more acceptance of a Māori approach?

Well, one aspect that needs changing is in the Treaty negotiation process. No matter what lip service the Crown pays to Māori processes, it only wants to deal with a group of negotiators and a post-settlement structure that is a corporate model.

It leaves aside all of the traditional structures that relate to the hapū. They’ve been sidelined from the very beginning — even with iwi that are absolutely, and quite genuinely, wanting a hapū-centric settlement. The Crown always makes sure, as a condition of coming to the table, that the hapū are irrelevant, and that the legal personalities that receive the settlement is established along corporate lines, rather than really tūturu traditional lines.

And that puts hapū against hapū in the settlement journey. It even puts hapū against their own negotiators. The Crown then moans about our disagreements and says it won’t come to the table until we’re united.

Ever had a look at what goes on in parliament? Do they ever look united? Do they ever look like they have one voice? Or do they look like they’re coming from different directions? Damn right. It’s called democracy. But they can’t accept it when Māori want to exercise our traditional hapū voice in democracy.

They tell us that, if we don’t all agree, then we can’t have this settlement. Some things have changed through the years, but one thing that has survived is the mana of our hapū. It’s been systematically undermined by the process of Treaty negotiations and the structures that are created post-settlement at the instigation of the Crown.

But that’s not right. And we should be absolutely vigilant that hāpu — as a legal entity recognised in the Treaty of Waitangi — should not be marginalised or legislated out by the Crown. Or even by those of our own people sitting with big hats and big briefcases, like iwi leaders at the table.

After all, hapū were the property-owning construct for Māori. The proprietorial rights of awa and of the land were attached to the individual hapū. Not to a corporate entity, created in parliament by the Crown post-settlement. The representatives of the hapū should be the people of the hapū. And the hapū should be the voice of the iwi.

Sandra, let’s turn now to the volatile political scene we’ve been witnessing over the last fortnight — and particularly to Metiria and the Greens.

Well, if Metiria, like many others, was forced into a position as a young solo mum where she had to make a creative call, when it was either abiding by the WINZ rules or feeding her bubba — well, any fair-minded person can get that, because too many of our people are forced into that position through no fault of their own.

And, as I’ve always said, too often our beneficiaries find there’s too much week left over at the end of the money, and no money left over at the end of the week.

But Metiria’s decision to enrol illegally in an electorate was a completely different thing, and she lost me there. Through the years she’s done some great work, but this was a serious error of judgment.

I say this with tūturu sadness, but it was my view that she had to resign.

That, of course, has been one of the dramatic developments. But another eye-catcher has been Jacinda and Kelvin taking over the helm in the Labour Party. What do you make of that?

I think it’s absolutely marvellous. That, in my opinion, has been the obvious line-up for leader and deputy for at least the last two years. And it begs the question why the Labour MPs and the Labour Party hierarchy couldn’t see the obvious long before this.

That’s where the talent has been. That’s where the capacity has been. Both Kelvin and Jacinda have very distinctive and engaging ways of talking to the New Zealand public. None of the recent leaders of the Labour Party have had that, and shame on the Labour Party for leaving it so late.

How do you see Jacinda changing New Zealand politics?

Well, she’s actually a very experienced politician, she’s highly articulate, she’s a safe pair of hands, she’s a great communicator — and she represents a generation where there’s a feast of votes to be had from people who’ve been turned off by politics and don’t vote.

So this is far more than just a change of face and a one-night wonder for those on the left, who may have been feeling that the election was going to be an exercise in futility — and that perhaps their vote should go to Winston or the Greens.

What about Kelvin? What does his promotion say about Labour’s attitudes to the Māori seats? Or does it say anything?

The first thing I’d like to say on that, Dale, is that it’s about damn time, too. For many years, the Labour Party has undervalued its Māori MPs, the significance of the Māori seats, and Māori issues in general.

So it’s good to see Kelvin come through, because he’s the real deal, and he represents an electorate where our people are doing it tough, and where the issues are close up and personal for him.

Do you think Jacinda has a handle on Māori issues?

When her leadership was announced, I went back through several of her speeches, including her maiden speech, to see what she’d said about our people and our issues — and I have to say she’s been flawless.

For example, in her maiden speech, she talked about her childhood in Murupara and about poverty. And she spoke about things that aren’t vote catchers with mainstream voters, such as the need for reo Māori to be compulsory in all schools in New Zealand.

And, for me, these have been signals that she and Kelvin will make a great leadership team.

Then we have the Māori Party with its willingness to work with whoever is in government, with anyone who’s advancing Māori interests. And their role in Wellington raises the question of whether Māori interests are best advanced through politics or protests.

We need action on both fronts. It’s important that we get our people to parliament to change laws that are unfair to us. It’s also important that we stand at the barricades and fight so that we have a voice in all matters that concern us. So it’s not either-or. It’s both.

But I have some serious reservations about the Māori Party. Under Pita and Tariana, they did a con job on our people, because their justification for propping up National was the argument that it’s better to be at the table than outside in opposition.

And I think most of our people, including me, get that. Except that I’ve been a cabinet minister and I know that there is an actual tēpu. It’s called the cabinet table. It’s in a room in the Beehive. It has a cabinet secretary that goes with it. And it’s a place where all the cabinet ministers sit down and battle one another for every last buck for their causes, for their portfolios.

But the Māori Party under Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples were never, ever at that cabinet table. I’m sure if they hear this, they’d say: “Aw, yes, but we could go to all of the cabinet committees.” But that’s not the cabinet table. They weren’t there. And yet our people believed they were.

Just recently, we’ve had Tuku Morgan, the leader of the Māori Party, indicating that they could team up with Jacinda and Kelvin in the new government.

Yes. That’s been interesting. That’s looked like an olive branch — and their support could be critical. So, despite all the disputes and the baggage between the parties, Labour would be unwise to close down the option of working with them.

What about Winston? He takes a very dim view of anyone who suggests he’s anti-Māori. He argues that his support for Māori kaupapa stacks up alongside anyone else’s.

First of all, I have to say that Winston’s worked in coalitions before, and he’s done so very effectively. And sometimes I feel aroha for our political kaumātua, in that his opponents portray him as an utterly loose cannon. But, when he was in a coalition government as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he proved himself to be incredibly capable in what is not an easy job.

He’s politically savvy, he’s worked in coalitions before, he knows the National Party like the back of his hand, and he knows the Labour Party like the back of his hand. The way it’s looking, he’ll probably be the kingmaker and he’ll get to call a lot of shots.

But, if Winston Peters and New Zealand First are in a government after this election, it won’t be the end of the world. My view is that, although some of his policies are anti-Māori, Winston isn’t by nature anti-Maori. At heart, he’s not racist.

I watched him and sat beside him in parliament for some years, and I know, for instance, that he really believes the Māori seats should go. He’s astute, and, sadly, he knows views like that resonate with his Pākehā constituency.

But I, and most other Māori, believe that he’s absolutely wrong. And he needs to be pressured to put those ideas, those prejudices, on the back burner.

Still hanging over us is the John Key cloud. Still gathering honours for his eight years in charge of the country. But still abhorred by those who could see no virtue in his priorities or style. What do you see as his political legacy?

I don’t think that he leaves much of a legacy, good or bad. And that, ironically, was sort of the secret to his success. He was essentially a very middle of the road kind of guy without being as offensive as, say, Rob Muldoon and Ruth Richardson. Or Richard Prebble and Roger Douglas. So he probably won’t be remembered for much.

Thanks, Sandra, for your observations. Perhaps one final comment on the future, seeing that we now have a kind of browning of our MPs, thanks to a large extent to the representation we’re getting through MMP.

Yes, we can applaud the range of representatives we’re getting in parliament since we did away with First Past The Post. We had so few of our people as MPs under that old system.

But we aren’t winning the struggle. Back in the 1990s, post Roger Douglas, there was the catchcry that we should be “closing the gaps”. That was a reference to the inequality between us and mainstream New Zealand, in employment, housing, health, education, and so on.

Here we are, though, in 2017, with more Māori in parliament but with the plight of our people worse than it has ever been. And remember, this is the post-Treaty settlement era.

So, looking forward to 2040, the singular task of every Māori who gets elected to parliament, has to be to ensure that every injustice and all inequality that our indigenous people are suffering, is dealt with and brought to a halt. That should be the driving force of every one of our own MPs, whatever political party they’re in.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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