Dame Tariana Turia spent 18 years in parliament after flexing her political muscle in 1995 at Pākaitore in Whanganui, where the establishment didn’t welcome what it saw as Māori intrusion at Moutoa Gardens. But her style hasn’t been to buckle under the pressure of white authority, as we’ve seen from her walkout from Labour, her success with the Māori Party, and her defiant advocacy of Whānau Ora. Here, with Dale, Tariana, now 74, is looking back on those years.
Tēnā koe, Tariana. And thank you for joining us. You’ve had a number of proud moments in your busy life. But I wonder if you could identify the event, or events, that have been super special for you.
Oh, I think the most heartwarming moments have been the birth of my mokopuna. George and I have 26 grandchildren and 28 mokopuna tuarua, so we’re very, very thrilled and honoured to have that kind of legacy.
Now let’s hear about this fulla, George. He’s not often in the limelight, but it’s clear that he’s been a great, though quiet, supporter for you.
Well, he’s my toka tumoana. My rock. He’s always been an amazing support for me. But he’s also been clear about what his place is and what mine is. He’s been a wonderful dad and grandfather. And even though he hasn’t been so well over the last couple of years, that hasn’t altered the contribution he continues to make to our tamariki and our mokopuna.
Would I be prying if I were to ask how you two met?
How we met? All right. Well, when I was young, I wasn’t allowed to go out much. But I went to this dance with a cousin who’s no longer with us. He took me to the dance. And there was another cousin of mine, Mana Te Patu who, like me, wasn’t used to going out that much. And, when a guy began disturbing the two of us girls, she said to me: “Look. There’s someone outside, just by the door. He’ll look after us. Let’s go out and pretend we’re with him.”
So we went outside and there was George Turia sitting on a big motorbike. And Mana said to me: “Just go and sit on the back, so that guy thinks you’re with him.” So I did, and he took off on the motorbike with me on the back.
So that was the beginning. And the end, I’d say.
Well, how lovely. Now let’s turn to names for a moment. And one of your names now is “Dame”. How come?
I had mixed feelings about that when it was proposed. But when I came home and talked to the family about it, they told me that I’ve always been a bit of a dame so they didn’t think that was new.
But, going way back, I was named by my uncle who took me when I was born. My grandmother had, in fact, promised other members of our family that they could have me. But my uncle went and took me from my home, and called me Tariana — and there it was.
I’m very lucky because I’ve been brought up by a number of people. My grandmother first, and my uncle and aunt who lived with her. And then I finally spent my time in Putiki with my aunt, and her sister and brother. So I’ve had a lot of moving around.
I think some Pākehā would see being moved from family to family as quite unstable. But I was usually moved because there’d be a death of one of the ones raising me. I’ve been very fortunate, though, that I’ve had wonderful people loving and caring for me. So I’ve had a great life living with families who’ve been so good to me.
Do you feel at times that you’ve had the best of the old worlds because there are few more generous kindnesses than the act of whāngai?
Yes, because each time I was moved it was because my nanny died and then my aunties died. So it was a case of having to be moved. And my grandmother didn’t want me to go to my mother. And now that I’m older, my whāngai brothers and sister are just so wonderful to me. I couldn’t have wished for better whānau at all. Ever.
Did you reconcile with your mum at some stage?
Yes, I did. My mother had me to an American soldier. A Marine. She was 26 at the time. But she was told, right from the get-go, that she couldn’t take care of me and that I’d go to family. So that’s what happened. I was promised to an aunt and an uncle from Putiki, and the reason I was promised to them was because my mother was actually engaged to their son who was a pilot — and he got killed overseas.
But, when I was born, my uncle — who became my dad — went and took me and brought me back to Whangaehu. I would’ve loved to have lived with my aunt and uncle. But I have to say I’m not sorry that my dad brought me back to where my heart is.
Can you tell us about Whangaehu?
Well, Whangaehu is everything that I see in myself. It’s my tūpuna, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. And, when I go to the urupā there, I know that I’m looking at myself. I can see myself in the photos of my cousins and aunties who’ve died. I look very much like them — and I cherish that. I cherish that this is one place where I can come and feel secure, and feel love, and know that when I’m gone my children will have that same experience. And my grandchildren. And they do already.
Te reo Māori wasn’t a part of my growing up days, and I get the impression that your story is similar. We all have our own reo kōrero. But what is yours?
That’s true. I don’t have the reo, although I can understand it. But I don’t have the confidence or the competence to speak Māori. None of my mother’s generation had the reo and that’s because they were hit when they spoke it at school. When I think back over my mother’s life, I believe it was almost like she was traumatised by the experience of being hit with a strap at school — and she never got over it.
And, naturally, when they had children, they never wanted them to have that experience. So generations here in Whangaehu have missed out, and it’s really sad. And now, with the next generation, we’ve been focusing on reo regeneration.
It’s not easy, and I think that, as I’ve got older, it’s got harder, so I’m really sad. And if there was one thing that I would’ve wanted in my life it would’ve been having the reo. I went to all the classes that they had but, you know, I just couldn’t get into it even though I love it. And I love it when people are speaking in te reo. It kind of resonates through my body. But can I do it? No.
You speak for both of us there, Tariana. Now, what about your schooldays? Anything worth noting there?
It wasn’t notable for me, I have to tell you. I was a bolshie student and I didn’t enjoy secondary school at all. Didn’t do that well either, to be honest.
And when I left school, I went nursing and met my darling. I’d only been nursing for about two months when I met George. We were married when I was eighteen-and-a-half. And pregnant. So I was a disgrace to my family who raised me. They weren’t very happy at all. However, all was forgiven when I had children, beautiful children.
And now George and I have been married for 57 years — and some people, from my family particularly, say: “God, I don’t know how he put up with you for that long.” But we’ve had a good life. And we’ve been really fortunate to have had the gift of being able to spend time among my whānau and his whānau as well because he came from a family of 15.
Let’s turn now to Tariana, the politician. How did you get into that game?
Well, I remember after the Pākaitore protests in Whanganui in 1995, Ken Mair and I decided we would stand for the local council. He’d stand for mayor and I’d stand for the council. I think I got 500 votes and he got 1500.
But then the old people started telling me that I was chosen for leadership among our people. And my aunt said that she and her brother had raised me for a purpose, and they saw that purpose as me going into parliament.
Then I was asked by Labour to stand for them. First of all, I said no because it wasn’t something I really aspired to. And, anyway, I wasn’t sure whether I’d fit in philosophically. I don’t believe that the state should provide everything. I believe that we have the ability and should have the responsibility to think for ourselves — and that’s what has been taken away from us.
But I went in with Labour, and after I was in there for three years, Helen Clark offered me a ministerial. So, you know, things just kind of took off from there. But then there was the Foreshore and Seabed issue. That was my greatest disappointment in Labour because I don’t think many of them could see that what they were doing was wrong.
I realised that it was my own fault because I was the one who decided to go with Labour — and so I had to put up with what came out of that. In the end, I left. And I remember my cousin, Archie Taiaroa, telling me that what happened to me is what happened to Matiu Rata. That I’d end up being tossed aside.
And I said: The really good thing about this is that I don’t care. And if I don’t get back into politics, it won’t matter where I am because I can still be political without being a politician or part of the government.
Before your venture into national politics with the Labour Party, and then the Māori Party, your experience at Pākaitore must have played a big part in your development.
I think that for me it was a matter of reasserting our Whanganui-tanga. We were able to stand strong and tall — and stop allowing others to tell us what to do. In fact, the occupation arose out of the fact that the mayor, Charles Poynter, waved his finger at us to tell us that we couldn’t stay there. And we saw everything that we believed as being under threat. So we decided to stay there.
And then what could they do to us? I mean, they could put us in prison but they couldn’t silence us. So we stayed there — and we were there for 79 days. I was working at Te Puni Kōkiri at the time and they were not impressed that I took 79 days off.
But, Dale, I did ask for leave. It’s just that I didn’t say how much leave.
It was a really inspiring time of my life because it affirmed to me that, if we truly believe in who we are and what we should be doing for ourselves, you practise it. Or you keep quiet about it. So it was a turning point for me. And I loved that period in my life.
We ended up being given an eviction notice and told to leave. We decided that we’d leave in our own way — and so we left. Our young people wanted to fight back, but I learned a long time ago that you only take on a battle if you’re gonna win, and that wasn’t gonna happen because already they’d moved the army to Whanganui. And police were everywhere.
It wasn’t a good feeling. We weren’t scared of them. But we didn’t want to put our people through anything violent because we knew we’d lose and we felt that, if we lost, that would have a huge impact on the psyche of our people.
Back to the world of Wellington politics now. And I wonder, even though you fell out with Helen Clark, what you made of her.
I had huge admiration for her leadership, so I was absolutely gutted when she agreed to go ahead with the Foreshore and Seabed confiscation. I never expected that from her, Dale. She’s a highly intelligent woman and understood the history of this country intimately. But, in the end, it comes down to votes. That’s what drives political parties. It’s votes. And the really sad thing about that is that it’s mostly white votes. And that’s who you have to appease.
That was a great disappointment for me, but I knew immediately that I’d have to leave. However, we went on for a few months, negotiating and talking about it. But, in the end, Archie met with me and about 300 of our iwi from home — and we decided that it’d be untenable for me to stay with Labour.
There were people who were worried that I wouldn’t get back in — but, you know, Dale, I didn’t care, because I wasn’t gonna go away and it didn’t mean that I couldn’t be political outside. The good thing was that the Māori Party grew out of all that. And I’m still proud of the Māori Party even though we lost all our seats in the last election. I don’t think our people ever quite understood that you’ve got to be at the table of power to be in the decision-making role.
A couple of other questions for you now. Here’s one. Who’s the most impressive Māori politician that you’ve had dealings with?
I suppose we have to give the honour to Winston. He’s been there the longest and he’s been quite incredible, even though often he speaks against Māori. There’ve been so many things he’s achieved, and so many New Zealanders have benefitted from his work. To last in parliament for over 30 years is absolutely amazing.
But I also mihi to Nanaia. She came in at the same time as I did in 1996 when she was only 26. And she’s been outstanding. She’s grown into this amazing, confident young woman who speaks the reo. She’s got everything.
And the most impressive Pākehā politician?
That’d be Bill English. Whenever we raised issues with Bill he was always very clear about what he understood and what he didn’t understand. When we talked about Whānau Ora with him, he didn’t quite get what it was about, but he became our staunchest supporter. I was really grateful to him because, if the government were to take Whānau Ora for what it is, it would have the most astounding impact on our people.
Coming up there’s the government review of Whānau Ora. What do you anticipate its future to be?
I think we’ll know whether we’re achieving what we’re aiming for when we see our families having the confidence and ability to make serious decisions about themselves and their future — and being economically stable.
We’re in a really bad state at the moment and that won’t change until the government acknowledges that they’ve taken all of our resources and left most of our people in a pōhara state. The government has never truly owned up to what they did to us. In our schools, we haven’t been teaching Māori history and about how our lands were invaded. We need more honesty and to be prepared to face the truth. Otherwise, we’re not gonna get to where we need to go to.
Well, you’ve been a remarkable contributor, Tariana. And we should acknowledge and admire the principled nature of the stands that you’ve taken. Becoming a dame is one indication of the country’s respect for you. But what did the family make of it?
My first reaction to it was that I shouldn’t take it. Then, when I came home, my youngest boy said to me: “What makes you think that this is about you?” And, when I thought about it, I knew that it would mean everything to the aunties who raised me. So I decided I’d accept it. It’s been very humbling to me, but also, in some ways, quite difficult to accept this kind of honour. But I’d like to think that I’ve served our people well whatever role I’ve had.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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