Marama Davidson hasn’t wasted any time in making a mark in politics since she became a Green MP last year. (That was after the resignation of Russel Norman who had been the co-leader with Metiria Turei.)
In this interview with Dale, she talks of being a shy kid at school. But for some time now, she’s been confident and articulate enough to revel in the spotlight whenever that provides an opportunity to argue the case for the issues she’s pushing. Like the need for much more care with the environment, human rights, Māori rights, and the roles for women.
Her speaking ability, she figures, comes from her whakapapa. That’s a blend of Ngāti Porou, Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi. The confidence has many sources, including a BA (from Waikato and Auckland), and a diploma from the Awanuiārangi wānanga. Then there was nearly 10 years with the Human Rights Commission as well as an active life as a forthright blogger.
Kia ora, Marama. Now what about that lovely name? Where did that come from?
That’s from my aunty, my mother’s sister. I’m named after her. And it’s really special to me because we lost her when I was still a child, and when her children were very young. She was in her early 30s — a beautiful, fun-loving, hilarious woman. And I’m carrying her name with much honour.
Have you a second name as well?
That’s Mereana. From my father’s sister. His only sister. She was the only girl out of seven children. Right now she’s very ill and we’re aware that our time with her is precious. So I’m carrying the name of these two fantastic wāhine representing both sides of my whakapapa. They’re both really important women to me.
Also, my name Marama connects me, not just with our moon and with light, but with the job that I’m gifted with, which is to try and bring enlightenment on important issues to people.
Ka pai. We’re all familiar with your dad, Rawiri Paratene, and we’ll talk about him in a moment. But we don’t know too much about your mum.
She’s a beautiful Ngāti Porou woman who’s living in Ruatōria. Hanakawhi Alexandra Akuhata Paraone Nepe-Fox. She’s from Te Araroa. That’s where my Hinerupe marae is. And Mum has connections to Rangitukia and Tikitiki as well, although she was born and bred in Wellington.
She is my lifelong rock of wisdom — the person I go to when I’m feeling at a loss as to what to do. Like when I’m struggling with my whānau, my tamariki or politically. I guess she’s typical of a lot of our amazing Māori women who stay in the background. They’re not famous. They don’t have degrees or titles. But they’re absolute rocks in our whānau. Brilliantly political and intelligent. And almost humble to a fault. She is, for me, a huge example of mana wāhine.
You carry yourself as though you’re the oldest in the family. Are you?
Oh, I absolutely am. My younger siblings (my brother and sister) will laugh at your observations there, Dale. They’re only two and three years younger than me. But I consider myself the kuia over them and have done since I was probably only two. Then I have two stepsisters. And all five of us were born inside of three years. And then our little baby brother came along from my father and my stepmother. And so he’s been the typical spoilt younger brother with these five much older siblings.
Your dad’s an interesting guy, and I’ve been lucky enough to talk with him a number of times over the years. He’s had a passion for our reo too, stretching back to when he was just a teenager. And he’s lived a high-profile life. What have you liked about being his daughter?
I loved the insight into the performance and art industry that we were able to take for granted. And I loved mixing with people like Ralph Hotere, Hone Tuwhare, Merata Mita, Witi Ihimaera and George Henare. We knew them just as Dad’s mates. It wasn’t until we were older that we realised the contribution they’d made in te ao Māori and around the world. It’s been an incredible privilege for us. Dad never really liked the fame side of things. So that wasn’t something we ever focused on.
Was there any difficulty growing up in the whānau of such a high-profile guy in Aotearoa?
Well, we wouldn’t say it was a difficulty, but I think Dad regretted, as I do in my life now, the time that he wasn’t able to spend with us. He was constantly travelling. Even now, he’s just returned from two years overseas travelling with the Globe Theatre.
Sometimes having to live away from us almost broke his heart. But we never felt disconnected from him because of the time that he did spend with us, and just knowing that he was a loving and devoted father. So we never felt the sense of loss that some children feel — even those with fathers living in the same house every day.
Any problem for you as a little kid seeing your dad on the telly?
Well, I remember once, very young, watching Play School on TV and wondering if I had two dads because there was one at home, physically with me while I was watching that programme. Then there was one on the television — and I was too young to understand how he could be in two places at once.
But I guess we’ve always watched him on television and in the movies and he’s always been just Dad to us. We haven’t seen him as anything other than Dad. And now Koro. That’s been his role. What I will say though is that his role as a grandfather has far superseded his role as a father. He decided, once his grandchildren were born, that we were secondary.
That’s an interesting kōrero. I think that’s happening to me, too. Your dad’s renowned as a principled fighter for the reo. And the picture of him that sticks in my mind was when he was on the steps of Parliament House helping lead the reo petition — and he was still a teenager. So he’s been a fighter for the language. What was your reo journey, Marama?
Oh, my goodness. I, too, have that image. I think Dad might’ve been around 17 at that time. It was around then that he met my mother. They had me not too long afterwards. And because I had these young, urban Māori parents, disconnected from their tūrangawaewae and their reo — well, that was the legacy I was born into.
English is my first language. And I’ve had to pick up te reo mainly as an adult. A little bit as a university student. And my reo journey has been embarrassing, painful and challenging because you have to overcome feeling inadequate at not being able to speak your own language.
I consider myself a beginner, really. But, in my role as an MP, I feel committed to making an effort in a public way. And that’s excruciating. I’ve been criticised for the mistakes in my reo. And I accept that — and I accept that my role is to keep making improvements in my reo.
Those improvements are going to take me the rest of my life. But every day I’ll make an effort to show other Māori who are struggling that it’s also okay to speak our reo, even though we’re not mastering it yet. Because, if we think that only the expert speakers have the right to speak, then we’ll never learn as a people.
Kia ora. Your schooling seems to have been disjointed. Different cities. Different schools. All over the place. And, eventually, up north.
Absolutely. Otara, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin primary schools. And then Opononi Area School and Northland College in Kaikohe. Boarding at Queen Vic too. All that was due to Dad’s mahi. And it was hard for me because, although people won’t believe this, I was a really shy kid. However, I’m thankful now for that diverse experience which, I think, has enriched us as adults.
No doubt the time you spent in the Hokianga left a special imprint on you.
When my grandfather died, we went to his tangi in Whirinaki and it was the first time my father had ever been there. And we looked around this beautiful little valley, and at these beautiful people. And we thought: “What? How can we belong to this amazing place and we didn’t even know about it?”
So, my father immediately ripped us out of the suburbs and took us back home. I can’t articulate how much that will mean to me for the rest of my life. Having an unbreakable connection to my tūrangawaewae in both Whirinaki and Motukaraka across the harbour. Growing up under my mountain, Te Ramaroa. Swimming in my awa in Whirinaki and my moana in Hokianga. And growing up knowing all of the nannies and cousins — and visiting the urupā every weekend and being ahi kaa on all of our marae. That’s invaluable.
We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of being connected to your place and your people as you go forth wherever in the world. That allows you to know who you are, to reach out, accomplish whatever it is you want to do, and go anywhere you want to in the world. That’s because you are rooted to a fixed wairua — and to a place of belonging. I had nothing but love for those places and those people. They guide and uplift you in every bit of your mahi.
Marama, I understand that you’ve got six tamariki. Did they come before varsity, or were you a young mum when you studied for your degree?
I was a young mum with tamariki. Our three older daughters are 22, 20 and 19 — and then we’ve got our three young ones who’re nearly 11, 9 and almost 8. So I’ve been a mother for most of my life. And that’s partly why my own activism has come much later because, in my early varsity days, I was focused on trying to pass exams and look after children as well.
Well, way back, Marama Paratene became Marama Davidson. But who’s this guy, Paul Davidson? I’ve never met him but he must be a neat bloke. That’s what I’m picking? Tell us a bit about him, if he wouldn’t mind.
Of course, he’ll mind! He’s a beautiful man and he hates the limelight. He hates being in crowds. And, because of that, as I keep saying, he’s married to completely the wrong woman. But he is my absolute, solid security. He’s an amazing father. And, while I’m off gallivanting around the country and saving the world, he holds the fort along with our oldest daughters. He’s the main reason I can do what I’m doing. And I’m so grateful that all of our children have got him.
Paul is a Pākehā. Born and bred in Manurewa. A James Cook old boy. And with an incredible appreciation for what whānau means. Being married to a stroppy Māori woman like me who’s staunch on kaupapa and tikanga Māori is a challenge but he’s full of tautoko. And so our kids are very strong in knowing that they are Māori and Scottish, which is his whakapapa.
And other influences in your life?
Well, there’s definitely my grandmother, my dad’s mum. Patricia Charlotte Broughton nee Hancy. From Motukaraka. She passed away 28 years ago and yet she’s still a massive influence in my everyday life. I think about her all the time. She’s a constant inspiration to me as someone who went through a lot. Lost so much. Lost her language. That was beaten out of her at school. Lost her land. Lost two of her babies when they were young. Lost her husband. She was a tower of strength and I miss her every day.
It’s no surprise that you took an interest in human rights. And maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when you stepped into politics because you’re so articulate. Perhaps your move into politics was inevitable.
My dad would say that. Many years ago, while I was working at the Human Rights Commission and had started to get my opinion out there publicly, my dad said to me: “You should be a politician.” And I completely dismissed it. He’d say that orators are in our whakapapa. And he spoke of his grandfather having a beautiful public speaking style and another uncle who was articulate in both English and te reo on the marae.
I never met them, of course. They were gone long before me. But I’ve heard about people in my whakapapa and our oratory skills. “Gramps”, my great-grandfather, was Himi Hancy and his articulate tuākana was Uncle Tim Davis.
Okay. Now, in the political world, you’re Green. Always Green?
Yeah. I’ve always talked about standing as a Māori woman first and foremost — and having a viewpoint on all sorts of issues and kaupapa. So it was a seamless, effortless move to join the Green Party and to continue to do that. To continue to speak up on issues as a Māori woman. As a Māori woman concerned with protecting our waters, our rivers, our moana. Protecting our earth and our whenua. Protecting our people and understanding the collective responsibility of ensuring all of our tamariki are cared for and that we all have authority over our communities and whānau.
Those values have always aligned with the kaupapa of the Greens. So, I guess you could say that me becoming involved with the Green Party was inevitable. I always admired their style.
And I can’t go past Metiria Turei because her style epitomises the approach of the Greens, which is dignified and honest politics. It’s transparent politics and sticking clearly to our values.
Metiria is a remarkable woman, there’s no doubt about that. But I’m sure that there are others who’ve inspired you.
Oh, goodness, so many. But recently we had the passing of Maya Angelou and I couldn’t go past her regal style of writing and her clarity on important issues. Particularly relating to women of colour. And I cannot go past her when I think of people who’ve been inspirational.
Of course, I’m inspired by our own wāhine toa here in Aotearoa. Our Eva Rickard. Our whaea Titewhai. Our Te Puea. And our own kuia all through our whakapapa who’ve always stood up for our identity as Māori, and for our responsibilities as kaitiaki for our people and our land.
It’s not just about being inspired by those people though. It’s about understanding you’re just continuing the mahi that others have put out there for us, to make sure that we keep doing the work.
Thank you, Marama. But, as we move towards the conclusion of our kōrero, how do you feel that you’re working in this field at a time when women are emerging from the shadows of tāne. That’s been happening over a number of decades, of course. But this is a time when wāhine are becoming much more prominent politically.
Well, immediately you make me think of other women who could be part of my previous answer like Dr Leonie Pihama. And Sina Brown Davis. Dr Mera Penehira too. And other women whose names not many other people will know, but who’re the backbone of our communities. At their marae. Or who’re leading our little whānau kapa haka groups every week. Or running homeless shelters. Or volunteering their time to manaaki other whānau who’re in need.
That work has always been done by amazing women leaders. But what we’re seeing now is an acknowledgment of that work. More and more women are having leadership roles. That leadership has always been around, right from the genesis of te ao Māori from Hine-nui-te-pō, Hineahuone.
The power of wāhine has been there right from the get-go and it’s never stopped. But the oppressive power of the patriarchal society and the forces of colonisation around the world led to an overbearing, tāne-centred approach that hasn’t done anybody any good, especially not men.
And now the world is beginning to wake up and realise that women on the frontline are essential — and that we are nothing without their leadership and their contribution. And my role is to highlight those women leaders and the values that women, especially indigenous women, have been standing for.
Ngā manaakitanga kia koe mo te kōrero i tenei ahiahi, Marama. As always, a privilege to talk with you about such things. And thank you for sharing the inside of your life and world with others in the hope that it might inspire. Much appreciated.