A Hard Act To Follow: Dr Pita Sharples' contribution to what success the Maori Party has enjoyed is difficult to over-estimate. Compared to the mature Totara he is replacing, Te Ururoa Flavell, is a political sapling.
THE MAN LOOKED EXHAUSTED. Hardly surprising really – given the drama of the preceding days. In was November 2008: the Labour-led Government had fallen; Winston Peters was no longer a Member of Parliament; and the Maori Party had just won five of the seven Maori Seats. Slumped on a chair in the corridors of Parliament Buildings, Dr Pita Sharples was looking every one of his 68 years.
Perhaps it was my imagination, but as I sat across the corridor from him, waiting to take my turn on Maori Television’s live broadcast from the Maori Affairs Committee Room, I couldn’t help speculating that there was something more to be gleaned from Dr Sharples’ expression that mere physical fatigue. The thought crossed my mind that I was looking at a man who had fought a long battle with himself – and lost.
And that could only mean one thing: that Tariana Turia had prevailed, and that the Maori Party would be signing a coalition agreement with the victorious National Party.
“Don’t settle for anything less than a seat at the Cabinet Table”, I volunteered. “Make sure you’re where the decisions are being made.”
He smiled wanly, knowing already that this was beyond his own, Ms Turia’s, and the whole of the Maori Party’s power. They would receive portfolios, yes, even the highly symbolic title of Minister of Maori Affairs, but in terms of real power they would, like so many of their people, remain outside the door. The Maori Party may have talked its way into the room where the spoils of victory were being divvied up, but Dr Sharples knew already that they would not be offered a seat at the table – not by the Nats.
I would like to think that had the choice to collaborate (or not) with the National Party been Dr Sharples’ decision to make, then he would have held the Maori Party aloof.
But, it was not his decision.
That the whole of Maoridom has become entangled in Ms Turia’s utu upon the Labour Party is a tragedy only New Zealand politics could produce. Those who diminish the role of individuals in moving our history forward – or backwards – would do well to consider Ms Turia’s career.
These fierce old kuia, wreathed in the mysteries of their people’s blood and soil, emerge from time-to-time to trouble the deliberations of men. Advised by voices no one else can hear; protected by guardians no one else can see; they are not to be gainsaid or refused. And, when their work is done, they fade back into the mist and silence of the rivers and mountains that made them.
Yet, for all of Ms Turia’s formidable strength, it was Dr Sharples’ straightforwardness – his infectious good-humour and grandfatherly wisdom – that allowed the Maori Party to accomplish such good deeds as are worthy of being remembered.
Ms Turia may have been Maoridom’s frightening sybil, but it was Dr Sharples who re-built the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, which Labour’s Foreshore & Seabed Act and National’s Orewa speech had so badly damaged.
It was Dr Sharples who accustomed Pakeha to the idea that a Maori-based political party could participate in the affairs of government without igniting a civil war. And, in the Iwi Leadership Group, it was Dr Sharples who introduced his people to an alternative model for influencing the colonisers: one that did not involve loud-hailers or hurled fistfuls of Waitangi mud.
And now, for his trouble, Dr Sharples has been shown the door by Te Ururoa Flavell. Gone will be the kaumatua’s openness; his refreshing disposition to speak the truth freely, rather than waste everybody’s time by laboriously constructing a lie. In place of the avuncular smiles and chuckles, we shall all have to get used to Mr Flavell’s gloomy monotone.
The perfect symbol of the Maori Party in decline: Te Ururoa Flavell
Has anyone ever seen Mr Flavell smile?
No matter. The Waiariki MP’s passive aggression: his cultural conservatism; make him the perfect symbol of the Maori Party in decline.
A study in exhaustion.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 July 2013.