Going into the general election late this month, 61-year-old Te Ururoa Flavell has the advantage of facing the Waiariki voters as the Minister of Māori Development and as a co-leader of the Māori Party.
He’s up against Tamati Coffey, a 37-year-old who has a high profile, too, although mainly from his television work, some years ago, as TVNZ’s weatherman and a series of other roles including Intrepid Journeys, New Zealand’s Got Talent and a win in Dancing With The Stars. But his background has been much more than just being in the spotlight on telly.
Early on there was an honours degree from Auckland University in political science — and here he is chatting with Dale about his links with Labour and about his hopes for denying Te Ururoa a fourth term as the Waiariki MP.
Kia ora, Tamati. A lot of us have got to know you through your various roles in television. But we don’t know too much about your whānau connections.
Well, on my dad’s side, we are Coffeys from Taranaki, dating back to 1863, when one Andrew Coffey jumped off the boat from Ireland and met a lovely local lass in New Plymouth. That was the start of the Coffey family tree in New Zealand. So, Taranaki is where we hail from — but not for long. There was a big migration of our whānau during the Taranaki wars, moving down to the Hutt Valley, which is where I grew up.
On my mum’s side, Te Arawa is home. My koro is from here in Rotorua. His whakapapa is all around here. My nanny, she was from Taupō. They met here in Rotorua. Had my mum. The second Mum finished Rotorua High School, she gapped it out of Rotorua. Ran away down to Lower Hutt where she met my dad. The rest is history.
I’ve got one sister who’s a year older than me, and another who’s about seven years older than me. She was whangai’d back to Rotorua to live with my nan and koro because she was the oldest girl.
The most inspirational people in your life?
I know it’s a cliché, but my mum is a bit of an inspiration to me, especially for the challenges she overcame. Getting out of Rotorua, trying to break some bad cycles that were going on in her family at the time, setting a new course for her life and for us kids as well.
She made sure that we didn’t end up on the factory floor like she and Dad did. And she pushed us into education and made us really strive to succeed and do something with this very short life that we have. I feel lucky to still have my mum around, living here in Rotorua.
What sort of work did they do?
Dad (Gerald) and Mum (Waiarangi) were both factory workers. Lower Hutt in the ’70s and ’80s was the home of industry and manufacturing, when New Zealand used to make stuff, which we don’t really do any more. Dad worked at a plastic bottle making factory. Mum worked at Lever Rexona, the factory that made Jif and Spray ‘N’ Wipe, shampoo, toothpaste and all that kind of stuff.
Then, when Dad was made redundant from his job, he retrained as a chef. He is now the very happy cook at the Rotorua Citizens Club. My mum, when she moved back to Rotorua with my dad, found herself a job at the Māori Land Court and has been there ever since.
You surprised a lot people, including me, when you turned to politics and stood for Labour three years ago in the Rotorua electorate. But you were into politics back in your university days, weren’t you?
That’s true. I was the first in my whānau not just to go to university but even to finish high school. When I showed up at university, I didn’t really know what university was all about. But I settled on politics and that really floated my boat. So I thought: “All right. I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get into this.” With a minor in history, because history fascinates me.
So I did that for four years. I had a great time at Auckland University. Then, lo and behold, instead of carrying on down that path, I got an offer to be a kids’ TV presenter. That changed the course of my career.
When you were studying New Zealand history, you would’ve become very familiar with the impact of the colonising process on the Māori world. How did that affect you?
When I was at university I got quite militant and became the president of the Māori Students Association. That was my first glimpse into some of the wrongs that had gone on. I realised that my life was very much a product of that, too. My whānau had moved away from their tribal areas to try and find work. They’d been urbanised with the move to Lower Hutt, which was state house central.
And also, the pepper-potting in housing developments where they put a Pākehā family next to a Māori family and so on, with the hope of integrating. But it wasn’t about integrating — it was more about assimilating. So it was no wonder that I didn’t have te reo Māori as my first language. And we grew up being away from, and feeling quite removed from, our tribal areas of Rotorua and Taranaki.
It was very interesting, actually, as I realised that I was living history. But as I look around now, I see how badly Māori are represented in statistics. It makes me sad but it also makes me realise that it doesn’t have to be like this.
Now, with this interest that I have in politics, with this potential influence I’m going to have as a young politician, actually, I’ll have the power to turn around some of those bad statistics. The number of Māori in prison, Māori dropping out of school, Māori teenage mums, Māori home ownership. It doesn’t need to be the way that it is. We don’t have to accept it. We can make a difference. But it takes a wee bit of organisation.
When you look back at New Zealand’s political history, are there some inspirational figures who have moved you?
Well, of course, there was Whina Cooper, leading the Land March. There was an example of a kuia that was on a mission to stop the sale of Māori land because she felt it was getting out of hand. So, seeing this frail old lady walking from Te Hapua, all the way down to Wellington, that got me fired up.
Then I look at people that have been behind the Treaty settlements, such as Bob Mahuta. And it wigs me out to think that Nanaia is about to be a colleague of mine. Hopefully — election all going well.
Then there’s Annette Sykes, who I have immense respect and admiration for. At university we studied her and the Ngā Tamatoa days. And there’s the Jackson whānau and everything they’ve done for te ao Māori as well.
You’re a young man with a particularly high television profile. Do you think that is helping or hindering your political aspirations?
It’s a gift and a curse. A gift because, when I go knocking on doors in Ōpōtiki or anywhere else I don’t have to explain who I am. When the door opens, they see me and they say: “Hey, it’s Tamati.” And they embrace me. So that’s cool.
But then it can be a liability, too. A report came out on Te Karere the other day with the headline The TV star versus the Minister. I have to do some real hard yards to make people see past the weatherman and see that I’ve actually got a brain.
When you were a young fulla, I imagine you were forced to keep your sexuality under wraps. Has it been much better now that we can be more open about such things?
Totally. It’s certainly been a journey. The gay rights movement — being able to be who I am — has evolved in my lifetime. When I was born, it was something that was completely off the table. It was wrong and it was actually illegal. As I’ve grown up, there was the Homosexual Law Reform that went through and became instrumental in normalising gay relationships.
And then the civil union stuff in the mid-2000s changed the dynamics again. It was okay to have a civil union relationship akin to marriage. And then, only recently, suddenly we’re able to get married. And this has all happened in my lifetime. So I’ve been living and breathing the history as it’s been happening.
I feel sad for some of our older aunties and uncles who’ve had to live in the closet or live that lie, because they haven’t been able to be the people that they wanted to be. But it gives me hope for the future that there’s a generation of kids coming up, not too far away, who won’t give a toss whether you like boys or girls, and who know that being in love is the biggest thing of all.
Most people who don’t know Rotorua won’t be aware that you’re in the bar business with Ponsonby Road — and that you’ve made a commitment to paying your staff a living wage. You didn’t have to, did you?
We wanted to live and breathe the values of the party. When we first opened the bar, paying a living wage wasn’t feasible because we were just trying to get open and start trading. A year later, we realised that business was going well, so why wouldn’t we pay the living wage? That decision has been nothing but brilliant for our business. We’re proud of our staff and we pay them really well.
Why can’t we be inspiring young people to be able to have their own restaurants or their own bar one day and be those people? It’s bloody hard work. You’re dealing with alcohol, and people who are highly charged. Especially on a Friday or Saturday night. You have to keep your smile.
We say that the money that we give our staff is in recognition of what they have to put up with. But also it’s recognising that it’s not easy to live in this day and age, and we want to encourage people to stick with their job, rather than hopping from bar to café to restaurant.
Back to politics now — and your choice to join Labour.
Our whānau have always been Labour — aside from the time of the foreshore and seabed. I remember when I was young asking Mum about the difference between Labour and National. And I remember her saying: “National looks after wealthy people, son. And we’re not wealthy, so we vote Labour.” That was a simplistic way to look at it, but it’s stuck with me.
As I’ve grown, I’ve watched how rights for me as a gay person have evolved in my lifetime. My choice to go with Labour is partly because Labour was at the forefront of pushing it in the ’80s, and then validating it again in the civil unions. And then making everything normal with the recent marriage equality stuff. I almost feel I owe the party for helping me and my community and other people like me.
Yes, there was the foreshore and seabed stuff and our family firmly walked away from the Labour party at that time. It was an awful period and there were harsh things said about what they were doing.
But in 2014, when I had to make a decision about whether I was going to stand back in that election, I talked with my whānau. They were a bit reluctant, and I said what I still say now: “How long do we keep the party in the naughty corner?”
I watched the Māori Party — everybody’s saviour at the time — and they were supposed to be repealing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, but they only changed the name of it and rubber-stamped it on behalf of the National Party.
And the kind of dreams and aspirations that we had for the Māori Party didn’t come to fruition. So I think we’re like a lot of Māori families that have said to Labour: “All right, you’ve had your time in the naughty corner. Now get back to the job of helping our people.”
One thing I love about Labour is being in a room with people that share the same values as you. That’s something you can’t really put a price on. It’s an āhua thing. You’re with a bunch of like-minded people who are all about the community and how we can help each other rather than out for our own individual gain. I’m very much on the red team.
Do you feel that the Māori Party, although well-intentioned, perhaps, during that period of the foreshore and seabed, have in fact, done some damage to Māori politics in the way that our Māori politicians are perceived? Some would say that they’re propping up a right-wing government. Do you think that they’ve damaged Māori politics?
I think that they’ve damaged it for themselves. They took an offer that was looking good to them at the time and they came up with that line about it being better to be sitting at the table than not being there at all.
I believe that they believe that that was the right thing to do at the time. But I also believe that this many years on, as the tide is going out for the National Party, I think it’s going out for the Māori Party as well.
Naturally, you’re arguing that it’s time for a change in the Waiariki electorate and that perhaps Te Ururoa Flavell has had more than enough time to fix things.
Well, he’s had 12 years in the job — and now he’s saying he wants another three years to take care of “unfinished business”. But, on his watch, our statistics haven’t turned around. Māori home ownership is no better off. Our people are still getting locked up in prisons. Our kids are still dropping out of school. It’s true that the numbers have been against the Māori Party but they’ll still be judged by their actions.
Well, you’re in an interesting battle for Waiariki. And it’s clear that it’s been made even more interesting with Jacinda now leading the Labour team.
I think two things have happened with the leadership change. You’ve had Jacinda being selected unanimously by the caucus members. She had the support of everyone in that room. Some of the previous leaders haven’t had that degree of support.
But also, she’s just bloody lovely. She’s 37. She represents the future of New Zealand, which is giving people hope that we haven’t had for quite a while. She’s fresh. She’s intelligent. She’s beautiful. She knows her own whakapapa. She’s lived a rural life, growing up in Morrinsville. She’s done her stint in Murupara.
I tell you, that ticks boxes for people around here because they say: “If you’ve spent six or seven years living in Murupara, you know what it’s like for most towns around the Bay of Plenty that are looking for opportunity and hope.”
So that’s gone down well. And she seems unflappable too.
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