Posted on August 3, 2010

Harawira Smartens Up His Act

Derek Cheng, New Zealand Herald, July 31, 2010

Hone Harawira doesn’t hate Pakeha New Zealand. Being pro-Maori doesn’t make him racist or anti-Pakeha, he says.

He doesn’t care what Redneck New Zealand thinks of him but he has no animosity for them, either.

The Te Tai Tokerau MP is brutally honest and doesn’t mince his words. Nor does he dilute his method or message to make it more palatable.

He embraces the radical firebrand label because, he says, that’s what he is. Though his opponents are quick to accuse him of playing it up for the cameras, they respect him for being principled and a tireless advocate for Maori.

Harawira admits he is arrogant, difficult to work with–which has led to tensions with the co-leaders of the party–and that he cares little of what people think of him.

But there are people in his own electorate who say he is loyal, effective and hard-working.

So how would Harawira feel if one of his seven children came home with a Pakeha partner?

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable. Like all Pakehas would be happy with their daughters coming home with a Maori boy–and the answer is they wouldn’t.

“That’s just the reality of the world. Let’s not cry about it. Let’s just live with it and move on.”

Some of his whanau have dated Pacific Islanders and he didn’t have an issue with it. Does that make him prejudiced?

“Probably, but how many people don’t have prejudices? I’m just like every other New Zealander, except I’m comfortable in recognising that prejudice exists.”

Harawira was the reason that hundreds of complaints flooded the race relations commissioner last year after he sent the infamous “white motherf*******” email to former Waitangi Tribunal director Buddy Mikaere, after the MP left a parliamentary trip in Brussels to take his wife to Paris.

The incident damaged the Maori Party, drove a rift between Harawira and his co-leaders and fuelled talkback radio for weeks until Harawira apologised–for the language he used, not for the sentiment, which was meant in the context of theft of Maori lands.

It was a low point for Harawira, who accepted he was probably one of the most hated men in the country at the time.

“I regret having got myself into that situation. Hell yeah,” Harawira says.

“It meant for the party having to recover a lot of ground and I don’t know whether it has and I don’t know whether it ever will. For me I had to spend time in the dog box when I could have been doing other things.

“I think the party handled it unwisely. We should have got together and collectively come to a point on how to handle it.

“I was close to going, but the support, particularly in the Tai Tokerau, was huge.”

Some festering sores remain. Harawira says the whole country went “off its tree” over his comments but when former Rugby World Cup ambassador Andy Haden used the word “darkies”–which he considers equally offensive–hardly an eyelid was battered.

Harawira adds that people were quick to applaud him when he stood against apartheid in South Africa, or when he called former Australian Prime Minister John Howard a “racist bastard” over his policies towards aboriginals, but they were outraged when he raised a mirror to New Zealand’s face.

“If everyone in Wellington hated me that doesn’t mean nothing, because the only ones who vote for me are the Maori on my roll, north of the harbour bridge,” says Harawira.

Now Harawira has regained momentum, particularly with his war on the tobacco industry through the Maori Affairs select committee. The committee is chaired by National’s Tau Henare, but Harawira has been the force behind the inquiry.

He says the Maori Party has also grown and evolved to a more comfortable place, allowing him to bark when he wants to. When the party takes a soft stance for the sake of the coalition with National, Harawira’s uncompromising voice can fill that gap. Take the rise in GST, which Harawira–and his colleague Rahui Katene–strongly condemned.

So why not just be an independent MP?

“I can see the benefits of that, but I came here because the Maori Party provided me, and us, with the opportunity to change the world and I recognise the value of that. The party is a stronger vehicle and the people want it to be so.”

Malcolm Mulholland, a Massey University researcher and former executive assistant to Harawira, says: “There’s no reason to leave, because Hone can still say what he wants to say. The party seems comfortable [with that]. If they didn’t allow it, they would be alienating themselves too far from the core vote.”

Mikaere thinks the method does more damage than good.

“There is a perception among Maori that Hone is a buffoon. A more considered approach would do more for across-the-board support. Signs of division in the wider circle are not appreciated. It causes disruption and makes everyone else’s job so much harder.”

But University of Auckland Maori Affairs professor Margaret Mutu, a fellow Maori leader of the Far North, says that people need to be unsettled and Harawira is perfectly placed to do that.

“There are a lot over the years who have given Hone hell because of this fundamental Maori thing about not offending people. All it did was get us poorer and more marginalised.

“Perhaps our older people who are more conservative sometimes wish he wasn’t quite so harsh.

“But those of us trying to make a difference in the real world realise that we’re not left with much choice but to do that.”

Labour’s Shane Jones, who grew up with Harawira, says there are pros and cons to Harawira’s approach.

“If you’re less divisive or less controversial, then you’re Te Ururoa Flavell. Now, they came in together. Who has had the most traction?”

Though Harawira rejects the suggestion that he is taking a moderate approach to the tobacco inquiry, it has cast a softer light on him.

No longer is Harawira the foul-mouthed attack-dog but the considered, studious critic seeking cross-party support.

National MP Simon Bridges, who sits on the committee, says Harawira’s inclusive approach has “earned his respect”.

The profile of the inquiry has played a part in allowing the Government to hike up the excise tax on tobacco with little resistance; only the Act Party voted against it.

Several public facilities have also declared themselves smokefree, or partially smokefree, including Auckland Zoo, the Museum of Transport and Technology, Eden Park and the University of Auckland.

“There’s no question that the tobacco inquiry is due entirely to his pushing and prodding and to his initiative,” says National’s Paul Quinn, who also sits on the committee. Harawira’s persistence that lead to the inquiry is a method he is familiar with.

He is an activist first, a politician second, he says. He has been on the frontlines, at the head of the protest movement, in jail.

His community activism has lead to many gains, including iwi-owned radio stations, a kura kaupapa and a community gym.

Now in Parliament, the platform has changed but the message is the same–only louder. “That’s fundamentally why he’s in Parliament,” Quinn says.

Professor Mutu says Harawira belongs in Parliament, for now.

“Political change, constitutional change, Hone will fight for that.

“Some of these things just look like dreams but Hone has always been able to take those dreams and do a hell of a lot more with them than anyone I know.”

Harawira says he has no plans to seek broader appeal. To water himself down would be to cut into the very fabric of who he is–even if it were for a future party leadership role. “Only for fleeting moments do I think I should be a nice boy. But only very fleeting moments. It simply wouldn’t work for me.

“I could never be a leader of a political party for the simple reason that it requires a measure of tact and diplomacy that I’m simply not suited for.”

But he appreciates the credibility he has regained. He has drafted a bill to ban all tobacco–which he would love to see happen tomorrow. But, like many of his goals, he knows that’s not politically achievable at the moment. “My willingness to shelve my bill is a signal of my recognition that the cross-party stuff might actually achieve a greater thing.”

Isn’t seeking broader appeal being more moderate, countering his firebrand nature?

“I still desperately and passionately want to achieve the same ends, but I recognise that a difference in style might actually help me to get there.

“I don’t see it as being more moderate. It’s a smarter approach.”