In the lead-up to the general election on October 17, we’ve been talking to some of the new and newish crop of Māori and Pacific candidates and MPs. Here’s Richard Pamatatau’s kōrero with Teanau Tuiono, who’s number 8 on the Green Party list . . .
It’s a Sunday afternoon outside of Palmerston North when Teanau Tuiono answers the phone. He’s dealing with green waste on his way home from checking election signs.
If the votes stack up on October 17, he’ll be the first MP of Cook Islands and Māori heritage to represent the Green Party.
Teanau has a strong track record in the global activist community and, for years, he’s been pushing for action around Indigenous rights, climate change and better education for minorities. He’s been a Ministry of Education advisor and has worked for the United Nations and a raft of NGOs and political outfits. He’s also been active in the Green Party for many years.
Last year, he ran in the Palmerston North mayoral race. He came second — 9,000 votes behind the incumbent — but that didn’t faze him.
Politics, he says, is a long game.
Kia orana, Teanau. Is this a good time to talk about your whakapapa? Perhaps starting with your mum.
Yes, my mother is Ngāpuhi, strong Ngāpuhi from Northland. So that should tell you something about me. She never took any rubbish, still doesn’t, and she was always political.
I started going to protests with her from a young age because she was very interested in the world and what needed to be made better — and obviously that’s never left me. I went to Waitangi with her and I watched and learned. And I got a taste for it from her.
What about your dad?
On my father’s side, the family is from Atiu in the Cook Islands. My grandfather, Papa Teariki Tuiono, was a trade unionist at the railways and was always looking out for people. He was a tumukōrero, someone who spoke for the islanders from Atiu who were living in Auckland back in the day. He was well known in political circles — and he knew David Lange.
He always used to say: If you want to be seen as a leader, you have to act as a leader. And that means doing your bit, whatever it is, for the community.
Your early years were in Auckland, weren’t they?
Yes. I was born in the maternity hospital on Lincoln Rd in Henderson on Christmas Day, in 1972. We lived in Te Atatu and I first went to primary school there. In the early 1980s, my parents, Iris and Teanau, ran a takeaway bar next to a pub on the corner of Khyber Pass and Symonds Street. We lived in the city for a while and then we moved to Ōtāhuhu.
And after that, when I was 10, we went to Rarotonga because Dad’s work as a telephone technician took us there.
We were in the Cook Islands for about two years and I loved it. Loved the climate and the people. Back then I could speak Cook Islands Māori, but I’m really rusty now and I speak it with a thick New Zealand Māori accent.
The leadership your grandfather spoke of is clearly something important to you.
Yes. And that, in particular, has come through my mum who’s now nearly 70. I remember going to anti-Springbok rugby tour protests with her in 1981. We have family photos of us as protesters back in the day. We were protesting for things that meant something.
And this was all happening against the backdrop of the Dawn Raids and the advocacy of groups like the Polynesian Panthers and Ngā Tamatoa. Ponsonby and Grey Lynn were Polynesian suburbs then and I had relatives that lived all around that area.
Your mother clearly was a staunch role model for you.
That’s true. She was a union member and worked as a cleaner at Homai College for the Blind. One of her union organisers was Syd Jackson, and while I didn’t pay a lot of attention to that at the time, I’m sure somehow it sat there in the background.
I wouldn’t say my mother was deliberately shaping me. I think she was just being a strong mother.
Meanwhile, I suppose you were deciding what sort of career you’d have.
By nature, I’m a curious person. And bookish. I love reading and I love numbers. Maths, calculus, physics, science and the like. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
I was enrolled in an engineering certificate but, halfway through, I switched and enrolled at Auckland University to do a BA in Māori Studies. And that’s what turned me on to activism.
I also enrolled in an environmental science paper and that switched me on to biodiversity and climate change. It was taught by Jeanette Fitzsimmons and she was just amazing.
And I knew I had to do more. I felt I needed to fill myself with knowledge, so I’d go to talks, wānanga, anything that would provide me with the knowledge to make me more politically active. I loved it.
Is that why you did a law degree?
It was a logical step really. I was in the same class as Khylee Quince and, if I remember correctly, we did criminal law together. Metiria Turei was around at the same time, maybe a bit later. It was a good time to be studying law at Auckland.
Did you have aspirations to become a great lawyer?
I was already involved in student politics and the law degree was just something I did. To be honest, I wasn’t the most engaged law student although I did enough to pass. But I steered away from corporate or company law. And I wasn’t focusing on employability. Indigenous rights and environmental issues were the things I was really interested in.
I never bothered with being admitted to the bar, though. That wasn’t important for me. I wanted to get on with activism.
Has the law degree been useful to you?
It’s been useful in my work as an activist because it’s taught me how to think in a different way. When you work globally, you have to be understood by a range of groups — and know how to play a range of roles.
And the law background has been really useful when I combine that with my grassroots knowledge and skills.
Your grassroots knowledge is both Māori and Cook Islands, isn’t it?
Yes. I walk in a couple of worlds at the same time. If I’m in a Pacific situation then I’m obviously a Pacific Islander — and the same applies to the Māori context. I’m really comfortable in both those worlds, however you define them, and, for that matter, anywhere in between.
You could describe me as a navigator, but I’ve worked around the world, so my boundaries extend beyond Indigenous and grassroots communities. I’ve worked with remote communities in rainforests and deserts and also in Africa and South America.
I also lived in Paris for two years while working for the United Nations — in particular, UNESCO.
What did you do for UNESCO?
From 2009 to 2011, I worked on projects with a focus on Indigenous Peoples and Small Islands issues. The UN is a really complex bureaucracy — our system, in comparison, is a total walk in the park.
I worked on a project in the Marovo Lagoon area of the Solomon Islands supporting intergenerational transmission of the knowledge of Indigenous peoples. It’s a rainforest area with incredible biodiversity where some of the flora and fauna are only known by the local people.
Is there anything from Paris that you’d like to see in New Zealand?
Obviously, the use of public transport by Parisians would be something I’d love to see in New Zealand. We have to get some of that to happen here.
In New Zealand, though, and in Auckland particularly, there needs to be some thinking, otherwise we’ll end up with even more urban sprawl and more carparks and less green spaces. With proper planning, we’ll get fewer carparks and more places for people to live — and the knock-on effect is a more vibrant urban culture that centres around communities instead of cars.
But what I’d really like to see is the French sense of activism. French people know how to get out and protest. It’s an accepted part of their culture.
People in France — and the unions and workers — are feisty and don’t put up with bullshit. They don’t hesitate to take militant action, and I wish we had more of that attitude here. We’re more mellow. In many ways, we’re too mellow for our own good.
I understand that your siblings are community focused, too.
Yes. Like a lot of Pacific Islanders, we were raised to be sure we made a commitment to the communities we’re a part of. My brother Teariki is a teacher in South Auckland and he’s completing a PhD in education. My sister Darlene supports a lot of different volunteer organisations, particularly those with a focus on child cancer.
I was really quiet and bookish at school. And when we went to the Cook Islands, I was put ahead a few classes because I had better English. But we were also taught other skills like planting, fishing, and community activity. And I loved the freedom of being in a village. It was wonderful.
Let’s switch now to the prospect of you becoming a Green MP in another seven weeks — and the prospect then of having to adjust to life in a bear pit. Do you have a plan for coping with that?
I won’t be the first activist to enter parliament and I certainly won’t be the last. I plan on learning the ropes. That’s the first thing. And I want my time there to be meaningful and to be part of the legacy of activists who’ve come in and made a contribution — people like Catherine Delahunty, Sue Bradford, and Metiria Turei. They managed to push the boundaries and get things done.
Is there anything specific on your wish list?
Obviously, I want to see movement in the environmental and social justice spaces. The planet is at a place where we need to have a strong and just transition from sunset industries like fossil fuels into green jobs that are sustainable — that are going to be here for the long haul.
We have to transition in a way that ensures workers’ rights are protected and puts what’s best for the community at the heart of the transition. And it needs to happen as soon as possible.
This is all about getting people to move, with comfort, into being much more aware of the need for climate action and ambitious about biodiversity. And we need a mix of strategy and legislation to get us there.
Things can be slow. We need to look and create opportunities to move faster. We do that best when we work with the wider movements for environmental and social justice outside of parliament. I worked in the UN system, so I’ve seen movement at a snail’s pace.
The parliamentary process is just one tool in the toolbox. I think it’s about getting enough proficiency with as many of the tools as possible in order to get the change you want. But we have to be aspirational, too.
Parliament is a big system, though, and it has rigid processes.
I get that, and that change has to be step by step. But if you go in with an open approach, things can be done. My theory of change is that you look for where you can get traction. And you work on that. And you work with people, not against them. Where you can’t work with them, call it a day and move on.
Sometimes the hardest thing to get is clarity. Understanding where your lines are and where their lines are and seeing if there’s any overlap. If there’s no overlap, then supporting those voices outside of parliament that align with your kaupapa to get the necessary traction.
That’s idealistic, though — parliament is about votes.
I totally get that, but I want to be able to move across spaces as much as I can and, if the votes for a particular thing aren’t there, I’ll work hard to see what I can contribute. Of course, I’m going to spend time getting to know people. You can’t just come in and expect them to listen to you.
Naturally, there’ll be issues where there might be big differences of opinion?
I’m always going to work as hard as I can to find common ground. More often than not, you can find places where you can work together — although, as Greens, we have to stick to our charter and be true to our voters, the membership, the people who put us in parliament.
If we go back to the fact that parliament is a tough environment, have you prepared your family for what it might be like if you’re elected?
The family is as ready as it can be and backs me 100 per cent.
I’m not too worried yet about what they have to deal with, but let’s just say they’re a pretty resilient lot.
Are you going to join the parliamentary rugby team if you get in?
No. But if there’s a kickboxing team, I’d be into that.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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