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Be Leadership Group: Political Leadership

The Hon Tariana Turia
Maori Party Co-Leader | MP for Te Tai Hauauru
Friday 2 September 2011

Be Leadership Group: Political Leadership – challenges, lessons, how to engage with and influence the political system

Conference room, Jet Park Hotel, Auckland

I was really excited about the opportunity to be with you this morning. There’s a statement on the Be. Leadership Application form that sets the scene for our meeting today.

It is from a woman called Margaret Wheatley – author of the best-seller, Leadership and the New Science. She says,

When a community of people discovers that they share a concern, change begins. There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.

It is a profound statement which reflects to me so many of the amazing movements I have had the privilege of being part of.

It speaks to me of the movement of whanau, desperate to hold on to our mother tongue, who called for and created the kohanga reo movement.

It reminds me of home, of the 79 days in which we reclaimed our tribal space at Pakaitore, to celebrate our Whanganuitanga. This was our collective decision to stand up for our own right to be in charge of our own affairs.

It makes me reflect on our decision to set up the Whanganui Regional Development trust – to invest in our own resources so that we could support our pathway to independence. This was a time back in the eighties, when we asked our families for anything between two dollars to twenty dollars a week – whatever they could afford.

You know the other day I was up here in Auckland at this incredible fund-raising event for the 2012 Olympics and without people even seeming to blink, $200,000 was made, quick as a flash.

The contrast between corporate fund-raising and our own humble efforts at home couldn’t be more stark.

And yet what we got, from investing in ourselves, was this amazing sense of self-belief that we could do for ourselves.

And indeed we did – we set up the board; we started running small businesses; we established a kura kaupapa Maori and operated for two years without any money coming in from the state at all.

We had enough money to pay for a principal for a year – and when that year finished, we went back to our families and asked them, do you want to contribute to an educational opportunity for our kids? And very soon, our families gave and gave expecting nothing in return.

It really was one of the most exciting times of my life.

And of course that statement about there being no power equal to a community makes me think of early 2004, when 40,000 came to parliament, rejecting the Government’s foreshore and seabed act.

It makes me think of the period in mid 2004 when I traveled around my electorate, visiting our marae, talking with our people, asking them what they wanted me to do.

And I think of the 24 May 2004 when a thousand people travelled to Turangawaewae at Ngaruawahia, raising the possibility of establishing a new political movement.

Six weeks later on the 10 July 2004, another thousand people flocked to Whanganui to collectively pledge their commitment at the inaugural hui of the Maori Party – a party that was officially sworn in as the first independent Maori Party in Parliament on 27 July 2004.

I get carried away, recounting our history, because I think of all the people who have come together, to place their faith in a movement which has never stopped believing that our mandate comes from the people.

And I want to share just one more story about my own political journey.

We have a concept in te Ao Maori known as te hunga wairua – it is, if you like, an expression of our spiritual being, that when events happen beyond our control, te hunga wairua is a way of reminding us we are part of a bigger journey; that our story is intimately connected to those who have gone before us.

When I first stood for Parliament in 1996, I stood for the Labour Party ticket. To be frank I didn’t think I’d have much of a chance. I was 21 on the list and Labour was polling poorly.

So the night of the elections I went to bed, thinking tomorrow will be just another day. In the middle of the night my sister rings me up, screaming that’d I’d got in. I just laughed it off, thinking she probably didn’t know how to read the results.

And then I switched on the tv – and sure enough – there was my name. I was beside myself, thinking about what I’d done.

As it turned out – three people had to lose their seats just for me to get in on the list - Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan; Chris Carter and Richard Northey. For ten days, we all sat waiting for the results of the recount.

And then on the day, the recounts came out – I was meant to be running a hui at Putiki marae, where I had grown up. It was a wonderful hui – we were immersed in strategic planning – how to ensure we demonstrated our own authority, when we came to negotiate with the government.

So I turned up at Putiki, I walked in, and the marae was full of our old people – and they’re all crying.

There were the kuia that I had grown up at their feet. The ones who taught me everything that I know today about working at the marae, working in the dining room, out the back.

There were those who growled me when they saw me up town when I shouldn’t have been. There were those who picked me up when I was lost. All of those people were at the marae that day – and it made me think how much each of them had contributed to shaping the person that I was, the person that I am.

I was asked today, to share reflections on my own personal experience of political leadership – but I cannot finish without referring to another two women who I believe are making a major difference.

The first is a young African-American woman called Majora Carter, who comes from the South Bronx of New York – and inspired a revolution around her concept to “green the ghetto”.

Her philosophy was that no community should be saddled with more environmental burden and less environmental benefits than any other. The South Bronx handles 40% of the commercial waste coming out of New York – and was also beset with huge issues around unemployment, poverty, crime and the like.

But Majorey refused to believe that people of the Bronx had to move out of their community to live in a better one – and so she set about making change happen.

And due to her inspired commitment and fierce persistence, eventually the South Bronx launched its first open-waterfront park in sixty years; a greenway was established with open space and bike parks, and she set up a job training programme that has achieved an 85 percent placement rate.

All testimony to the belief of that community, that there is no power equal to the power of the people discovering what it cares about.

And of course the other woman needs no introduction – and that is your own Chief Executive of the Be Institute – Minnie Baragwanath.

Change does not happen by people hoping things will be different, or waiting for the tide to turn.

Change happens by people believing in their own potential; and being guided by those who are part of that community, every step of the way.

Political leadership is about Minnie presenting at a Cabinet meeting of Ministers – and through her vision and her enthusiasm, capturing the imagination of those present.

It is about having ideas – and the plan to make them take life.

It is about testing and retesting your ideas, with your own people – taking the time to get it right.

And most importantly of all – political leadership – in my view – must understand that the greatest power resides in the people. We are but servants of the people – we are the ones who have the privilege to carry your voices; to advocate your concerns; to understand our strength comes from within.

I wish you all much courage, much audacity and plenty of support as you each embrace the challenges you have set yourselves – to Be the Change.


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