“To be the best New Zealander I can be, I have to be the best Māori I can be,” says Tama Potaka. (Image from Te Ao with Moana)

Tama Potaka is a man with a lot on his plate. He’s a cabinet minister in a coalition government that many perceive to have an anti-Māori, anti-Tiriti agenda. Within that arrangement, he’s been given the job of improving Māori development across a number of significant portfolios.

Moana Maniapoto attempted to get to know the minister a little better on her show Te Ao with Moana, and to get to the bottom of the contradictions facing him.

This is an edited version of their kōrero.


Kia ora, Minister. You were a dux at Te Aute College, what did you learn from that school?

One of the things that I learned from Te Aute College is to be proud of our tūpuna, our ancestors, and the people that went to our college, many of whom are adorned on the walls today. There’s Te Rangi Hīroa, Āpirana Ngata, Māui Pōmare, and others. But it’s not the only college with a proud record of contribution to identity and to Māori development.

Then you gained a law degree in the mid-1990s. What did you learn about Te Tiriti when you were studying law?

Well, the same premise that I maintain today, which is that Te Tiriti, or the Treaty of Waitangi, is the foundation document for our country.

You’re a graduate of Te Panekiretanga o te Reo (the Institute of Excellence in the Māori Language). How did you handle Tā Tīmoti? His challenge to you on Te Karere to step up?

Well, I absolutely love and adore Tā Tīmoti. Our other kaiako at the time were Sir Pou Temara and Wharehuia Milroy, and they, among many others, inculcated in me a sense that, without te reo Māori, then who are we as a people? We’re probably lost. E ai ki te kōrero, ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori. I hold on to that very dearly.

A lot of people feel like te reo is being whacked at — that it’s in danger in the public sector. What are you doing to combat that?

I operate on the premise that reo Māori is part of the country’s DNA. Past, present, and future. It’s an absolute taonga. And, at a very personal level, I’ll continue to speak te reo Māori, from morning to night, whether or not it’s in te whare pāremata, here in the House of Representatives in parliament, or elsewhere. So that’s the space I’m in, at a personal level.

At an organisational level, I continue to engage with the chairpersons and CEOs of our Māori language entities, of which we have four in government, including Te Mātāwai which is a kaupapa Māori-based entity focused on te reo Māori. I don’t think that we should shy away from making sure that the money that government invests to enable more te reo speakers is assessed from time to time, to make sure there’s value for money. But I’ll continue to advocate for te reo Māori, in te reo Māori and te reo Pākehā.

You’ve been in parliament for one year now. You have numerous portfolios as well as being a Hamilton electorate MP — you’ve got Māori Development, Te Ara Whiti which is Māori-Crown Relations, Conservation, Whānau Ora, and Social Housing. Have you been given a hospital pass?

No. It’s a great privilege to be the member of parliament for the hardworking people of Hamilton West, and also to be part of Christopher Luxon’s cabinet to make sure that I can do the best that I can to promote the priorities within those portfolios — but also to be the best Māori I can be, and be the best New Zealander I can be. And it’s funny that to be the best New Zealander I can be, I have to be the best Māori I can be.

There are some great intersections between the portfolios. For example, housing is a massive challenge for many of our Māori communities who disproportionately have inequality through the housing system. So having the Māori development portfolio, having the Whānau Ora portfolio and the Māori-Crown relations portfolio, they all intersect with things like housing and, incidentally, conservation.

So I think that there’s some intention for me holding those portfolios together where I can see the overlaps, where I can see the efficiencies, and where I can drive both Māori social, cultural, economic and environmental development together with the country’s development.

How much influence do you have, though?

Well, that’s probably something that you need to ask other ministers, I think.

No. I’m going to ask you. How much influence do you have on your other colleagues to say, for example: “Getting rid of Māori wards, that’s not conducive to Māori development.” Or, “Knocking back the smokefree legislation, that’s not good for Māori?”

I think that my advocacy, both privately with ministers, but also publicly in press releases, and the mahi that I’m doing, suggests that I do voice the concerns. Not always a single concern, but the diverse concerns of Māori communities and people like those who live in my electorate in Hamilton West. So I think it’s building my engagement with other ministers and with other agencies.

What was the key message you took from Waitangi?

I went to the Horahora poukai, then to the Kiingitanga hui, to the Rātana celebrations, and other hui, too. A couple of things that I saw across those hui is an absolute focus and appetite from Māori for kotahitanga, or unity, and the fabric of kotahitanga to shine through in our country of Aotearoa New Zealand.

And what that means is not that everyone must be the same. We all have our own diverse iwi, our own diverse communities, our own diverse aspirations. But we can live within a kotahitanga that’s based on whakapapa and whanaungatanga foundations.

I went to those hui, too. There was a lot of kotahitanga — and it was mainly against the government.

Yes, for sure. I think that’s an impression that many people will have. But there’s an aspiration that our whānau, our hapū, our iwi and our hāpori have, for that kotahitanga to encompass everybody in New Zealand.

I’m still trying to understand your point there. Because one of the big issues, of course, is the Treaty Principles Bill that’s been championed by Act. You were appointed a Treaty settlement negotiator. So you know about the Treaty. Do you have debates with David Seymour to say: “No, hang on. What you’re attempting to do here is to redefine the principles and therefore redefine the Treaty?” What sort of engagement do you have with him?

Well, as I said earlier on, the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is foundational for our country. That’s my view. And I think it’s the view of many people both Māori and Pākehā.

Is it the view of your party?

Well, I think it is. And you’ll see that in our constitution of the National Party. There’s been an absolutely huge amount of work invested — time, effort, and energy — in shaping the place and space of the Treaty, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in modern New Zealand.

But in the event that there’s a referendum pushed on the basis of what we’ve seen through the campaign, our prime minister has said that that would not be something that the National Party would support. We would find it very unhelpful for our country.

So there’s no risk whatsoever that that bill will go beyond that select committee?

What I would say is that our prime minister has made several statements over the last couple of months that a referendum would be very unhelpful, and that we are supportive as the National Party for the bill to be drafted by the Act Party, to be taken through to first reading and the select committee.

That’s still a very provocative thing to do?

I think there’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge. I’m very clear on my views on the place and space of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the Treaty of Waitangi in our society — past, present, and future — and I’m willing to have a very reasoned and professional debate about that.

Have you got enough mongrel in you to fight when people are saying to you: “Hey, Minister, we’re not putting up with this.” I mean, you heard everybody up at Waitangi. Have you got enough mongrel in you to fight against your own colleagues or your coalition partners?

You’ll find in my CV, and in the experiences that I’ve had, that I’m a very results and outcome driven person. And there’s a time to be a very strong advocate, there’s a time to be a negotiator, there’s a time to be someone who’s — and I have been — a person in the kitchen. And in terms of that debate around the Treaty and a number of other debates, I have to be very mindful that we work within a coalition agreement, and be very respectful of those commitments in those agreements.

Do Act and New Zealand First hold the kāwanatanga power in the government?

No. What I would say is that we are in a coalition government, and it’s a little bit different from other governments in the past.

Māori are feeling under attack on so many fronts. The Treaty Principles bill, the policy on Māori wards, Ōranga Tamariki changes, ditching Te Aka Whai Ora, ditching the smokefree Act, the talk of reopening drilling and mining. How is all that consistent with Māori development?

Well, my view is that we absolutely need to focus on resolving Treaty settlements and Treaty grievances. So there are a number of outstanding settlements, including my own people in Mōkai Pātea, but also Ngāpuhi and some other areas around the country. Those matters are outstanding, and they need to be resolved.

On the other side, we’ve got a lot of inequalities of opportunity and disproportionate stats. We often refer to closing the gaps, and the deficits that many of our whānau are suffering, particularly in education, health, and housing. And this government’s very focused, and ruthlessly determined, to help address some of those inequalities of opportunity. Hence, one of the reasons why I’m the Associate Minister of Housing.

But some of the strategies and policies that have been developed over the last few years to address inequities, which acknowledge the systemic failures of the Crown, are now being framed as preferential treatment, separatist, divisive, racist. How do you deal with the people in cabinet who are saying that?

I often refer back to evidence and data-based solutions. We have a great example in Whānau Ora, led by people such as Tariana Turia, Bill English and others in the National-led government supported by the Māori Party about 10 years ago.

Whānau Ora in my view, was a by-Māori, for-Māori, for everyone, initiative. There’s really strong evidence to demonstrate that there’s excellent social return on investment from Whānau Ora kaupapa. That’s something which I think can be used, engaged, and intersected with the social investment aspirations that Minister Nicola Willis and others like myself share, to help drive a better way of doing things.

A lot of that comes through devolution or decentralization of some pūtea, and less red tape, to enable whānau and those agencies that are helping whānau actually get on with their lives. We do not think that government is a solution for a lot of the challenges that we face.

Yet one of the major criticisms of this government is that it does not value evidence, or data, or Māori leadership and expertise. So, if we look at Te Aka Whai Ora. When I watched those debates in the house for that first reading, many people and many Māori were feeling very emotional. Because there had been such a lot of work from some of our best Māori brains, and the next minute, it’s all gone. That initiative was based on data and based on evidence.

Then there’s the policies on boot camps, prisons, gang patches. Those are not necessarily supported by data either. So how can you talk about data?

Then we have the research that’s in danger — which includes the Dunedin longitudinal study to measure poverty. This is not a government that values data and evidence?

Well, it’s something that I value. And I think in terms of Te Aka Whai Ora, which is a great example, we campaigned on that, as we campaigned on a lot of the matters that you described. And we reached a space where we could form a coalition government based on some of the commitments that we made in the campaign, and ultimately in the coalition agreements.

But I think you’ll find that Dr Shane Reti has been very focused on ensuring some of the resources that sit within government are devolved to iwi Māori partnership boards and others.

Is devolution the same as rangatiratanga?

I don’t think that it’s a complete overlap. I do think that there might be some intersections, but the tikanga through which rangatiratanga emerges is from a different value-set, or a different worldview, to devolution.

But if any government can just turn the resources tap off at will, then surely devolution is not tino rangatiratanga. Who determines how much resource, and to who and for what, it goes to?

Well, I think there’s some pretty strong communications and engagements between the government and a variety of Māori, iwi and others — for example, the National Iwi Chairs Forum — about what projects or what kaupapa should be prioritised in the engagement by government with trying to help deliver to Māori communities.

Some of the housing prototype projects are a great example where there’s been a pretty strong conversation between iwi leaders and government leaders.

It was suggested that your target was to reduce the number of people in emergency housing by 75 percent. How are you going to do that?

Our focus now is to really concentrate on those that have genuine need to be in emergency housing. And that involves an assessment of people as they’re coming through the gateway, but also figuring out how we can activate houses that already exist in the community for those people to move into. You might be surprised, as I was when I found out recently, that most people who leave emergency housing actually go into private rentals.

And we have to take steps to not only find opportunities for people to move into proper houses, but also help others build houses for those people.

What’s the deadline and how do you measure it?

There is a date, and that’s articulated in the government targets, which is 2030.

That’s a long way away.

It is a long way away. It does take time to both build houses, but also provide the right wraparound. That’s why, being the Minister of Whānau Ora, I’m very enthusiastic around how that can intersect with our housing portfolios.

You mentioned the Iwi Chairs Forum. They pulled out of the National Anti-Racism Action Plan because they said references to institutional and colonial racism are being cut back. What does that tell you?

I think that there are some people involved in the conversation around building the plan that have found it very uncomfortable to continue that conversation without an absolute focus on those matters which you’ve referred to. But that’s a matter that’s in the bailiwick of Minister Paul Goldsmith.

Were you consulted on, or did you back, the decision around Māori wards?

The Māori wards kōrero was very much a part of the coalition arrangements between New Zealand First and the National Party, and also between the Act Party and the National Party. But, yes, the material regarding the Māori wards has come through a variety of portfolios that I’ve had, and there’s been a pretty robust discussion around that.

It’s interesting, because you say there’s a push for decentralisation, and yet it appears the government is legislating to ensure that local government acts a certain way, instead of leaving councils to make their own decisions?

I respect how you could see it that way.

The government also says that it champions democracy. One of the things that people are really concerned about is the new fast-track legislation. It’s a bill that’ll put a lot of power in the hands of three ministers. And there is no mention of Te Tiriti in that bill?

Well, I think that there is a mention of Treaty settlements processes.

No, I’m talking about what happens when there’s a push for permits for, say, seabed mining in Taranaki?

What you’ll find is that, over the last few years, a number of projects have failed through RMA processes, or conservation processes, or other things. There’s been a bit of bureaucratic molasses, let’s describe it that way. And some of those projects are actually iwi-led projects. The bureaucratic molasses has made it harder for some iwi projects to proceed. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that there are some very solid protections for both Māori and Treaty interests, but also for conservation interests.

It is a lot of power to leave in the hands of a very small group of ministers. Where is the compulsion to have iwi on the panels or anything like that? They’re just going to handpick whoever.

There’s a bit of water, again, to go under the bridge until we see the composition of the panels. And I expect that both the conservation, as well as iwi Māori interests, are given elevation in these processes.

How much input have you had into this bill?

I’ve been involved, along with my office and the various agencies that are under my remit, in shaping and drafting and engaging on the appropriate wording for that bill.

So you are feeling confident that Te Tiriti rights and responsibilities of Māori and iwi, apart from Treaty settlements, are not under threat?

I’m feeling very confident that there is a pathway, a runway, a space, for iwi to lead projects that seek consent, and also be involved in projects as co-investors or maybe co-designers . . .

That’s a different thing from what I’m asking though?

No, I’m getting to that . . . as co-designers, and also to participate in projects that iwi are not investing in or investing through, but to have input and engagement through those processes. And there’s a variety of provisions within the fast-track legislation that enable that.

Beneficiary groups are saying that the cumulative impact of government policy is really having a negative impact. There’s the cutting of public transport subsidies, the benefit indexation so benefits will end up lower. There’s the changes to the free lunch programme, and holding down the minimum wage. So when the government talks about getting people into work, how’s that going to work when people can’t afford to do basic things?

I think the first thing for me to acknowledge is that a lot of people are doing it really hard in our communities and in society. Particularly a lot of Māori people. The numbers are pretty stark: 380,000 people are on main benefits, and 140,000 of them are Māori. There’s also some that aren’t on benefits but are doing it really hard.

They’re the working poor?

Yes, there’s the working poor as well. And our view is that those people who are in genuine need, just like with emergency housing, need to be supported. So, I really hear you when you say that many of the people in that space are feeling very vulnerable. I really worry for those communities, many of whom live in places like Hamilton West, but also Northland.

When we went up to Waitangi, we saw people living in vans and cars out at Hokianga Harbour. So I think there’s a bit of work that we need to do. We also need to invest in redeveloping mussel farms and aquaculture and other things, so we can create the employment.

What can you do about it? When beneficiaries are struggling so much, and that’s been exacerbated by government policy?

I think part of our intent is to really fire up social investment. You would’ve heard Minister Willis talking about social investment.

I’m ready to go into a trade training space, for example. That’s a space where I think I can lend a lot of advocacy and support within government.

Some of the policies around gangs. Do you think they’re going to improve things, or make them worse?

I think that many Māori will be subject to the policies. I think that many Māori are also the victims of violence, not just through gangs, but through a whole bunch of other situations as well. I’m hopeful that we can improve law and order in our communities.

Focusing on gang patches and gatherings. How’s that going to change anything when we’re talking about intergenerational trauma?

I hear you. Where I came to is, actually, what can I do to help influence those whānau that have been through trauma and are still suffering trauma today? So, a great example, is Waiariki Whānau Mentoring services in Whakatāne. And other examples like Te Rūnanga o Kirikiriroa, and others up in Hamilton, through the Whānau Ora portfolio. That’s a way that I think I can constructively support providers, agencies, and people who are trying to support those whānau going through that traumatic situation.

Just to touch quickly on education. There’s talk now of reviewing the history curriculum. There’s been a lot of awesome people that have spent a lot of time and energy creating that curriculum. A lot of expertise and a lot of Māori leadership. And that’s all under review. Are you concerned about that?

I’m not across the actual content and detail of that review, but what I am focused on and have been for many years, is making sure that we understand, and have some transparency on, what has happened in our history.

I think that there’s been some phenomenal and sensational work by those leaders that you described, but also by others who are doing this work elsewhere to make sure that we never forget.

I really acknowledge those young people from Ōtorohanga College who several years ago took that mahi to parliament and brought the petition. And I want to send mihi to them and others who have never forgotten to keep telling our stories.

Do you believe Māori ceded tino rangatiratanga?

No. We never ceded tino rangatiratanga. That’s why it’s preserved up in Article Two, ko te tuarua, of the Treaty of Waitangi. There’s a lot of other documents as well that reinforce that sense of tino rangatiratanga and also the movement that we talk about as being mana motuhake.

How do you fight for tino rangatiratanga?

Well, I think there’s a variety of ways. Some of that is more private and confidential and advocacy on a one-on-one basis. Some of that is through cabinet. Some of that is out in public. Some of it is talking with you and through other public mechanisms where I can make sure that we are all calibrated about what actually happened, in some transparency and light, in those stories that you and I have just described.

How relevant is Te Tiriti now in 2024, in public sector services like health, justice, and education? Is it relevant?

I think it’s more relevant than any time before, because I think that we’re in a position as a country to really gather around the ultimate aka matua of Te Tiriti o Waitangi which is kotahitanga. That isn’t just for Māori — that’s for everybody.

When you say kotahitanga, we have a handful of government ministers who are saying: “This Māori thing here, that’s divisive, that’s separatism.” Every incremental step taken by Māori is now deemed to be no good. They say we need to join together, which means everything Māori needs to disappear. So I think the kotahitanga that Māori are talking about is the fight against that.

It’s absolutely important for me to remind everybody of the promises and the covenants that were made in the Treaty document, but also what it means to be New Zealand into the future. And in my view, iwi Māori and Te Tiriti are fundamental to the country’s past, present, and future. But we also live in a very multicultural demographic reality under the covenant that is Te Tiriti, but also with an aspiration to be a strong, small, advanced economy in quite a diverse world.

Should Māori be excited about the budget on May 8?

I think the coalition government exists in a three-year term and will come up for an election again in a couple of years.

So don’t get too excited this year!

I know you’ve only been in parliament for five minutes, but when your kids come here for your valedictory speech, what do you want to say to them?

I’ve tried to be the best Māori I can be and the best New Zealander I can be, and I can only be the best New Zealander I can be if I’m the best Māori I can be.

And what does being Māori in this place look like?

It’s making sure that our identity is not only preserved, but it also evolves over time and that we are acknowledged and set as a fundamental part of the country’s future.

So many Māori are feeling traumatised by the events since this government has come into power. How do you handle that?

I do think people feel vulnerable. And that, for me, is a message that I must be a strong advocate and contributor to Māori success.

Parliament is a tough place. What would be the bottom line for you?

Well, I’m very well supported by my wahine Ariana and our tamariki, and that is fundamental for me. It’s a waste of time me talking about whānau and whānau ora if my own whānau isn’t strong.

I’m very privileged to be here, not only through the support of the hardworking people of Hamilton West, but also my aunties and uncles from places like Rata, Raetihi, Ākitio and Ōpunake.

Do they get in your ear?

Constantly. And that’s important because I need to be held accountable, not only to the people of Hamilton West, but to Māori, whānau hapū, iwi throughout the motu.

It’s been two years since we had our one and only conversation with the prime minister. Do you think you could put a word in for us with your boss?

I’ll have a kōrero with his team!

Thank you, Minister. Kia ora, thanks for speaking with me.

Mauri ora ki a koe, ki a tātou.


You can watch Moana’s full kōrero with Tama Potaka here on Te Ao with Moana.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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