Devouring the monster within, Jon Johansson

Crossing the Floor: The Story of Tariana Turia
Helen Leahy
Huia, $45.00,
ISBN 9781775501633

In Helen Leahy’s Crossing the Floor: The Story of Tariana Turia, a tale is told about Tūtaeporoporo, a taniwha taking the form of a shark. Tūtaeporoporo wrecked havoc upon the river tribes of the Whanganui, so they asked the famous dragon-slayer Aokehu for help. Aokehu hid inside a log smeared with foul-smelling bait to attract Tūtaeporoporo. Sure enough, the taniwha swallowed the log whole, whereupon Aokehu drew two knives and sliced open the shark’s stomach, eventually killing it and restoring calm to the Whanganui. At Pūtiki, Turia’s home marae in Whanganui, Aokehu is prominently shown poised over Tūtaeporoporo, represented by a pole at the front of the wharepuni.

The story of Aokehu is told by Turia’s nephew when describing his aunt’s decision to enter party politics and parliament, as well as the strategy that lay behind it: “she had a certain job to do, and that was Aokehu.” The role of a dragon-slayer is central in kōrero about taniwha. They are the story’s heroes, brave and cunning. Turia is certainly depicted in Crossing the Floor as courageous – with its apex her resignation from Labour during the Foreshore and Seabed furore, leading to the formation of the Māori Party – but less so for her cunning than her unwavering conviction.

The intriguing unanswered question, however, is who or what in the narrative of Turia’s political career represents the taniwha? Was it the New Zealand Labour Party? Was it the Helen-Clark-led Labour government Turia so dramatically crossed the floor to reject? Or was it any and all public institutions controlled by tauiwi?

Leahy, who served as Turia’s chief of staff among several roles in the Māori Party, has delivered what is certain to be an unrivalled work on her subject. At 575 pages, it rivals Michael Bassett’s Working with David (616 pages) and Tom Brooking’s Richard Seddon biography (583 pages). It surpasses David Grant’s work on Norman Kirk (511 pages), Barry Gustafson’s Muldoon masterwork (545 pages), and dwarfs the latter’s biography of four-term prime minister Keith Holyoake (429 pages).

Leahy sees her work, however, as more than “mere political hagiography”. Her approach is to capture stories about her subject that project self-reliance, mirroring the style of the indigenous Canadian writer, Calvin Helin. Leahy’s narrative is, accordingly, interspersed with many first-person reflections by Turia, as well as from supportive whanau, friends, activists and politicians, about key moments in her life and political career. It is impossible to read these perspectives without admiring Turia’s stubborn perseverance when overcoming obstacles or defying the powerful while serving whanau interests and ideas larger than her own.

This Turia represents the very best of whanau: empathetic, fraternal, forgiving, loving and tightly knit. In Crossing the Floor, strength from her whanau ties and from her exclusively Māori whakapapa sees Turia devote her life’s work to improving the quality of life for whanau, hapu and iwi. There is a glaring hole in Turia’s whakapapa – she denies the paternal side of it – and, in a fundamental sense, her denial reveals a huge blind spot that suggests that her moral judgements are both idiosyncratic and exclusive.

Still, Turia never wavers. She never doubts. Through heartbreak, joy, tragedy and triumph, her every choice is made with whanau as her ontological guide and at her spiritual core. Whanau Ora is the culmination of this work, transforming social services by placing whanau at the centre of the decision-making unit charged with improving Māori outcomes across education, employment, health and housing, as well as their physical and psychological well-being.

Whanau Ora also represents a different sort of transformation, one that evolved between the newly formed Māori Party and the post-Orewa, post-Brash National Party. It heralded an acceptance by National that Māori “special privilege” had done little to alter their poorer health and educational outcomes, their higher unemployment and incarceration rates, as well as lower mortality. Akin to Gandhi’s Satyagraha, coming to a new, shared understanding had a civilising effect on both parties, although, the test for National will be how well its fidelity is maintained after it loses power and, once again, confronts the unholy demands of opposition.

There is no doubting, however, that Turia and her Māori Party co-leader, Dr Pita Sharples, forged excellent personal relationships with Prime Minister John Key, his deputy, Bill English, and Attorney-General Chris Finlayson. They were united in wanting to lift Māori achievement, united in their mutual esteem, and joined in single devotion in keeping the socialists out.

The resulting achievements for wider Māori are not as obvious, judging by current social indicators. Turia’s flagship Whanau Ora programme faced one major reorganisation in 2013 and, although it received another $40 million, over four years, in the last budget, it risks being seen as an end unto itself (with attendant political risks), rather than as a means for the greater whanau empowerment envisaged by its architect.

Additionally, the fact that the starting point for the Māori Party was to strategically position itself as “the treaty partner” in government, where it stands in 2016 – after averaging since 2005 only 1.81 per cent of the party vote – imperiled as an electoral force, does not speak well of the party founder’s leadership legacies.

Such fault-finding, however, is not met with patience in Crossing the Floor, nor is space afforded to any who may have been critical of Turia, her occasional incendiary words lobbed at tauiwi, or her actions. The lives and aspirations of urban Māori, who represent the overwhelming majority of Māori in fact, do not easily fit Turia’s whanau-centred approach, so there is no meaningful reflection about the many paths Māori are taking to success in the 21st century.

Likewise, the humiliation that Turia suffered during the height of the Foreshore and Seabed imbroglio, when she was forced by Clark to lie on the back seat of the crown limo to avoid the media (with the exact opposite effect), was never forgotten or forgiven.

Turia’s contempt for Labour, deserved or not, comes into sharper relief when one compares her act of crossing the floor to vote against Labour’s disastrously ill-conceived Foreshore and Seabed Act, after she says she lost trust in Clark, with her quiet acquiescence after National raised GST in the 2010 budget. Even though it was a clear breach of their Confidence and Supply Agreement, and even though Turia admits that she was not informed by either Key or English before the budget, the latter humiliation required “discipline”, while the former required “principle”. Which offence, one wonders, had the greater real world impact on Māori?

In these stories, one can see Turia as Aokehu, but slashing wildly only at Labour. After the newly formed Māori Party triumphantly won four seats at the 2005 general election, the book reveals how Turia tried to help forge an alternative coalition with  Brash, after a cliffhanger election saw Labour just pip the National Party in gaining crucial bargaining advantages in forming the next government. The counter-factual doesn’t bear thinking about: Prime Minister Brash launches his promised massive tax-cutting programme in what proves to be the lead-up to a global financial meltdown. His government responds with an equally large austerity programme. That scenario would have obliterated the Māori Party and, luckily for them, Winston Peters was far more discerning than they were.

Despite its length, Crossing the Floor curiously sheds little light on Turia’s relationship with her co-leader, Sharples (who receives scant attention or praise), or how the co-leadership itself operated. This is disappointing from a political scientist’s perspective, given the unique richness of co-leaderships in the New Zealand setting.

Was Turia a dragon-slayer, like Aokehu? And who, ultimately, was the taniwha? Turia became a central actor in our post-Orewa phase of politics. For Labour, Clark’s relationship with Turia and, through her, with Māori, was a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. For Key and National, their road to post-Orewa perdition was similarly motivated. It is tempting to see Turia slashing like Aokehu only at Labour, but the sense I gained from Crossing the Floor is that Turia viewed all tauiwi institutions as Tūtaeporoporo, and she was adept at exploiting her moment to advance her causes as best she could.

For me, Turia’s stubborn determination to help her people is her standout quality. She also led through her actions, rather than words. Those actions spoke to a deep love of family and community, and a deep resentment about injustice.

She follows in the footsteps of Matiu Rata, an activist who challenged the then orthodoxy. Turia’s core is whanau, hapu and iwi. Her enduring symbolism is as an authentic champion of her people. For her time and place, that was enough.

Jon Johansson is a senior lecturer in politics at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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