Tariana Turia: A Model of Values-Based Politics in Action

The last week has seen widespread news coverage of the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill – and, in particular, the Bill’s granting of legal personality to the Whanganui River.

Ongoing global coverage of the undoubtedly innovative settlement should not perpetuate the myth that the New Zealand government has an overwhelmingly positive record on indigenous rights.  New Zealand has, for decades, incarcerated Māori at a rate – 704 per 100,000 – that exceeds the US imprisonment rate (698 per 100,000), to take just one example of institutional racism that persists in the country.

But I do not want to offer an assessment of the Bill or settlement here.  As a Pākehā (white or European-background New Zealander), I am not best placed to make that assessment: the voices of the Whanganui iwi (or tribe) must be centred in any such assessment.

Instead, I want to draw attention to a principled activist and politician who – as part of numerous campaigning movements and community activities – deserves significant credit for contributing to the settlement: Tariana Turia.

For those outside of New Zealand, unfamiliar with Tariana Turia, she is perhaps best known for crossing the floor to vote against her own Labour Party’s Foreshore and Seabed Bill in 2003, an egregious piece of legislation that extinguished Māori customary rights to the foreshore and seabed.  She resigned from the Labour Party, helped to organise significant opposition to the Bill, and set up the Māori Party – a party that currently holds two seats in the New Zealand Parliament.  As co-leader of the Māori Party and as a Minister from 2008 to 2014, she helped to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act and developed the landmark Whānau Ora programme, which involved family- and community-led involvement in social policy, consistent with tikanga Māori ( Māori values).

But Turia was involved with numerous campaigns and community activities prior to her time in Parliament, including in setting up the Whanganui Iwi Law Centre and the Te Awa Youth Trust, amongst many other initiatives.

She was also heavily involved with a 79-day occupation of Pākaitore (Moutoua Gardens) in Whanganui in 1995, designed in part to restore the mana of the Whanganui iwi.

The story of the occupation is told in Helen Leahy’s beautiful 2015 book, Crossing the Floor: The Story of Tariana Turia, which combines Leahy’s writing with Turia’s own words (and the words of others).  The occupation was a powerful stand against the ‘fiscal envelope’ announcement by the then-National Government that no more than NZD $1 billion would be spent on ‘redress’ for historical injustices.  The episode is all the more fascinating for followers of the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa (and the later movement in Oxford), since – like #RhodesMustFall – it began with protests over a statute: the statue of 1890s Prime Minister John Ballance (known for his anti-Māori views).  The statue had been decapitated and covered in red paint.  Like the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town (but unlike the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford)), the statue of Ballance was relocated in 2001, when an agreement established the land as a historic reserve.

Two other points about Turia emerge out of Leahy’s book.

First, she was a values-driven politician, who embodied a politics of care – and love.  Her speeches are studded with references to the tikanga Māori values that drove her.  Turia notes in the book: “I think of myself as having really strong values and beliefs, and I don’t care what we’re talking about; I only think about those things. … And I try to listen really carefully to the people, so that everything I say and do is essentially coming from them, from the people.” More specifically, the values of love and care recur throughout her career.  The word ‘love’ appears multiple times in her brilliant valedictory speech.  At the end of her parliamentary political career, she said: “I have one thing that counts and that is my heart.  It burns in my soul.  It aches in my flesh and it ignites my nerve.  That is my love for the people.”

Second, Turia was intensely committed to conversations about decolonisation – conversations that had been started by activists that preceded her, and that are ongoing. She speaks in the book about how hui (meetings) in opposition to the Foreshore and Seabed Bill reaffirmed the imperative of colonisation: “The basic premise of decolonisation is that tangata whenua have been adversely affected by tauiwi values, processes and institutions.  It is aimed at rediscovered and restoring tangata whenua philosophies of life.  The layers of colonisation have been all-pervasive, resulting in loss of land, language and resources; the theft of ideas; and the denigration of indigenous spirituality.” She adds: “‘Decol’, then, is about a process to reclaim tangata whenua values as a basis for life today.  It is not about a return to the past, and acting in traditional ways.  Rather, it is about a recovering of those values which have been life-enhancing in the past and pressing them into service in meaningful ways today.” Turia was also persistent in highlighting the realities of institutional racism, and provoked debates in her discussion of Post-Colonial Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Many other lessons could be drawn from Turia’s life by those who are closer to her; the Leahy book is merely one window onto her career.  But as praise is heaped upon Aotearoa New Zealand in the aftermath of the Whanganui settlement, and as many social challenges remain, we might bear in mind Turia’s example of a values-driven politics of care and love – and not lose sight of the need for ongoing conversations about decolonisation.  For, as Turia herself said: “There is a desperate need for us to get this relationship right.  No nations that are divided against themselves can stand.”

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3 Responses to Tariana Turia: A Model of Values-Based Politics in Action

  1. Love Beam says:

    Thanks for your article. It is very clear and precise. Love Tariana’s strength and passion.

  2. evakoenige says:

    Are you the Max Harris who gave a speech at the Auckland Writers Festival?
    I was moved by your/that speech and fully support the ideas expressed there about value based politics. It’s a model for all countries not only New Zealand. I’m also glad that Maori philosophy is part of the project.

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