Nanaia’s Mahuta’s appointment as new Foreign Minister was a source of fascination for domestic and international media alike – the first woman, the first Māori woman, and the first “tattooed Māori woman” as international media described her moko kauae.
“I wasn’t offended about it,” Mahuta told the Herald.
“I wasn’t surprised either,” she said.”I felt that the reaction signalled a lot of people not really understand what is the Māori culture and who are these people and what are these symbols that they are wearing so proudly on their face?”
“It was also a reflection of ‘an other’ kind of attitude … but I have to say most of the comments in relation to my portfolio responsibility have been positive.”
Mahuta does not make waves, but she does not make mistakes either.
She joined Tariana Turia in voting against Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed legislation in 2004 in its first and second readings, but supported the third reading.
For a political veteran, Mahuta has kept a relatively low profile, although it is often forgotten that she contested the Labour leadership in 2014, against David Parker, Grant Robertson and Andrew Little, who eventually won it. She had been the running mate for David Cunliffe’s unsuccessful bid at the leadership in 2011.
When Mahuta was first sworn in as a Labour MP, she was aged 26, the same age as Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is now, and that was 24 years ago, the same political vintage as National MP Gerry Brownlee.
Now aged 50, Mahuta is going through a political renaissance with her appointment as Foreign Minister in Jacinda Ardern’s second-term Government.
When she was first elected in 1996 she entered Parliament for the first time as No 8 on Labour’s list, coming from Māori aristocracy.
Now MP for Hauraki-Waikato, next week will be the ninth time she is sworn in as MP when her full name, Nanaia Cybelle Mahuta, will be read out by the Clerk of the House.
Her middle name was given to her by her father, but no one knows where he got it from.
“It doesn’t even sound like it comes from anything remotely connected to his life or mum’s life.
“But I like my mother’s version – your father was just trying to be flash.”
Her father and political mentor was Sir Robert Mahuta, the adopted son of King Koroki Mahuta. The next Māori monarch, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, was Nanaia’s aunt.
Sir Robert had also been chief negotiator for the Tainui settlement, the first Treaty of Waitangi settlement in the 1990s, which included an apology delivered by Queen Elizabeth at Turangawaewae in 1995.
Nanaia Mahuta had an unusual upbringing in which politics and diplomacy were integral to her family’s role, but she was also very grounded.
“There was no silver spoon in our mouths, I can tell you that. Might have been a wooden spoon spanking our bums if we were naughty. Our mum didn’t hesitate to do that.”
Her father had left school early, and got a job in the Huntly coal mines cleaning coal chutes. But he returned as an adult student, went on to Auckland University and then to Oxford University for two years, taking his young family with him, to study for a PhD.
“I feel that I’ve had the kind of upbringing that has been very unique,” Mahuta said.
“Exposed us to lots of experiences but exposed us as a family to witness a lot of leaders, when I think about the leadership that walked through just my own household.”
She recalls visits to her childhood home from predecessor Koro Wetere, Parekura Horomia, Matiu Rata, Graham Latimer, Eva Rickard and activists of the day.
“We were exposed to a lot of different types of leadership and a lot of political events that characterised many significant milestones in New Zealand’s history.”
Mahuta lives close to Turangawaewae in Ngaruawahia where she and her husband are raising two children, a daughter aged 7 and a son aged 11.
But the new job is requiring a different level of preparation and attention as she comes to grip with the state of New Zealand’s relationships and the priority issues.
Former Foreign Minister Winston Peters, whose New Zealand First Party lost all its seats at the election, has met Mahuta and associate minister Aupito William Sio to pass on what he can.
Mahuta is now working her way through a short list and long list of initial meetings with counterparts, including Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, United States Secretary of Sate Mike Pompeo, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois Philippe Champagne and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Payne was first up.
“We identified a number of issues that will be on the horizon as we work to strengthen our own personal relationship,” said Mahuta.
“And as two women, leading from our first conversation in our part of the world, immediately we recognised there were opportunities to work more closely together.”
The meeting with Pompeo occurred soon after he had quipped that the State Department would be prepared for a second-term Trump Administration, although Mahuta said there was no discussion of the US election.
“We didn’t talk about the election. It was very much wishing me congratulations.
“It was very general. It was probably too general to read anything from it except that it was a cordial first meet and greet.
He had asked about her priorities and she had talked about the Pacific and areas the Prime Minister had identified including climate change.
The meeting with Raab took place last Friday morning.
Mahuta said she had spent a lot of time getting up to speed with the portfolio through briefings from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
“That all helps to build a really good sense of how should New Zealand position itself as we engage and respond to certain things that are happening around the world.
“I did want to give myself some time to really understand the breadth of a range of issues and then build up my cache, if you like, of understanding of what’s happening to be able to do enough, a good position and an informed position to respond to matters.”
She won’t say if China is on the short list or the long list. Rather, she says diplomatically: “China is on the list. It is just trying to figure out how I approach that.
So has she been getting advice on how to criticise China without being overly assertive?
“We’re a small country critically aware of where we are positioned in the world and while there are many things I believe we have taken some bold steps on to influence and create a coalition of like-minded states in leading on things like climate change – and the Prime Minister has been really clear around those things – we are aware of who we are in the world and where our geopolitical interests lie and what we need to do in order to maintain stability in our part of the world.
“Some of that is about diplomacy. Some of that is about pressure at the right time and having the right conversation at the right time.”
She said she was getting updates on what was happening in Hong Kong where four elected legislators have been banned by Beijing from taking part in the next elections.
They were accused of encouraging sanctions by the United States against Hong Kong, the former British colony which was handed back to China under an agreement maintaining democratic freedoms for 50 years.
But it has been a graduated approach from New Zealand compared to Payne and others who have issued strongly worded statements.
On Thursday, a spokesman for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “We are deeply concerned at the latest developments that have eroded the fundamental rights and liberties of Hong Kong’s people. We support Hong Kong’s democratic institutions in line with previous agreements. The one country, two systems framework agreed between China and the UK needs to be upheld. The health of democratic and legal process in Hong Kong is an essential foundation of its development as a global hub and its success.”
On Friday, Mahuta tweeted part of that statement under her personal Twitter account.
The only statement Mahuta has made on her official website has been about the death of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai.
Until now, Mahuta has had fairly low-profile ministerial portfolios, Customs in the last term of Helen’s Clark’s Government, then Māori Development and Local Government in Ardern’s first term.
Ardern cited the strong relationships Mahuta established with local government leaders during the complex Three Waters reform policy programme as one of the reasons she had got the job.
Mahuta is confident she has a strong contribution to make.
“I believe I can bring a different perspective, a perspective that is rooted in culture, which allows me to have a different entry point as I forge relationships with counterparts, with other foreign ministers, but also as we start to carve out our unique contribution as a country to the international relations that we want to forge.”
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