Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox - interviewby Karl du Fresne
Marama Fox, the moral-conservative activist mother of nine who came into Parliament as the Maori Party co-leader, says Maori, CYF and politics have to change.
Marama Fox is the smiling face of Maori activism. As a guest on TV3’s 7 Days comedy show, in a segment where politicians are challenged to answer curly questions without saying yes or no, she is quick-witted, seems almost preternaturally at ease and gives as good as she gets.
At one point, she’s asked whether she gets annoyed when she’s speaking in Parliament and someone calls out, “What does the fox say?” – a reference to a video dance hit of 2013. Without missing a beat she shoots back, “At least they’re not saying ‘for fox sake’.” Boom boom.
That’s as profane as you’re ever likely to hear from the Mormon mother of nine, whose ripest exclamation is normally “jingoes” or “oh, my goodness”.
She’s a rare creature in New Zealand politics, this 45-year-old ex-teacher and shearer’s wife from Masterton who suddenly materialised on the national stage in 2014 as the newly elected co-leader of the Maori Party.
No one questions her commitment to Maoridom or the force of her advocacy, but she does politics with good humour and charm – not the practised, polished charm of the calculating schmoozer, but the unforced, unpretentious kind. And although she takes radical positions on polarising issues involving Maori rights and claims to sovereignty, she manages to do it in a way that disarms opponents.
In Parliament, she’s feisty but without any Hone Harawira-style curling of the lip. Explaining her appeal, political scientist Bryce Edwards says, “You can say a lot in politics if you say it with a smile on your face.”
To further confound political stereotypes, Fox comes across as something of a moral conservative – a family-first traditionalist who, in her maiden speech in Parliament, made a passionate plea on behalf of children. “The most important work we will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes,” she declared. “When we change what we do in our homes, we will change society.”
Edwards sees Fox as a different style of Maori politician, but he also suggests she’s “a throwback to an old way of doing politics, when people had a life before embarking on a political career – when they were teachers or farmers and came to politics out of a sense of duty, not as a stepping stone”.
NO APPRENTICE TIME
Fox arrived in Parliament as No 2 on the Maori Party list after the retirement of former co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia. Her background was in education: first as a teacher at kohanga reo and kura kaupapa (Maori immersion schools), later as an adviser at the Ministry of Education.
There was no time to serve a political apprenticeship. As co-leader, with Te Ururoa Flavell, of a party with a confidence and supply agreement with the Government, she was pitched headlong into the crucible of politics.
Did it faze her? Not that you’d notice. Fox gives the impression of having made an effortless transition from mother and teacher to confident, assertive politician. It’s as if she’s been training for it all her life.
She insists it wasn’t so hard. She sees Parliament as being all about relationship-building, which comes naturally to her. “It’s a kaupapa Maori model – it’s about meeting each other on equal terms by understanding who each other is. And that’s a reciprocal relationship.”
The toughest part about adjusting to politics, she says, was reconciling it with her home life. “People ask me how I cope with the stress, and I say that as long as everything at home is fine, then I can do anything.
“That’s been difficult. I’ve got a five-year-old who used to cry every time I left the house. She was four when I entered [Parliament], and now she waves me goodbye with a cheery smile and I’m like, ‘Aaaww.’ That’s even made it a little bit worse – that my family have all adjusted. ”
She likes her fellow MPs. “What I discovered by listening to people’s maiden speeches is that, actually, we’re not very much different from one another despite our political leanings.
“Everyone in there [Parliament] has a history that’s brought them to this point; they all have a story about what brought them into politics and they all just wanted to make New Zealand a better place to be in.”
So they just have different ideas about how that can be achieved? “Yes, but from a genuinely good-hearted place, a passionate place. I’ve made friends right across the House, in every political party” – including, she reveals, Act leader David Seymour.
She describes a relaxed relationship with Prime Minister John Key. “I don’t consider myself any greater or lesser than anyone else, no matter what they do or what their position in life is. So when I sit with the PM, I just naturally think of him as an equal, and that way we just get on with the business.”
She says that when she underwent a dramatic weight loss following bariatric surgery, Key struggled to find a diplomatic way of commenting on her changed appearance. “Marama,” he said, “you’re … you’re … you’ve lost a shitload of weight!”
LEARNING FROM WINSTON 101
Fox talks to the Listener in an unusual setting. The Golden Shears are on in Masterton and she’s spending a rare day in her home town to watch some of the action.
The family is deeply immersed in the culture of the shearing shed. Fox earned money as a rousie and a wool presser during her school holidays and met her husband, Ben, through an uncle who was a shearing contractor. Her five grown-up sons have learnt to shear and a daughter, aged 13, is learning the ropes.
We meet in a cafe near the Golden Shears venue, but it’s noisy, so we move across the street to a park bench under the trees in Queen Elizabeth Park.
Ben, in T-shirt, shorts and jandals, tags along and sits on the grass. He’s quietly spoken and he doesn’t say much, but Fox occasionally turns to him when she wants his opinion or seeks confirmation of a point. She unselfconsciously addresses him as “Baby” or “Hon”.
Fox’s move into politics has required some adjustment from him, too. He once dialled her cellphone number and discovered she was in Australia. He had no idea.
At one point I ask Ben how he would describe her. “Come closer, Baby”, Fox urges, apparently worried that his voice is too soft to be picked up by the recorder.
So, how does he describe her? Ben thinks for a moment before replying. “She doesn’t like it when I go out into my shed when we’ve had a bit of a dispute and I do my man stuff. She wants me to face off and tell her all about it, but I don’t like doing that.”
Marama: “It’s a Venus and Mars thing.”
Is she really headstrong, as she’s described herself? “Yes, very headstrong,” says Ben. But it seems she’s also sometimes willing to make a tactical retreat to keep the peace – or as Ben puts it, “She’ll end up agreeing with you, but you know that she doesn’t agree with you.” Fox laughs as if recognising herself.
How does she describe herself, then?
She says, truthfully, that she’s naturally bubbly and full of energy. She thinks of herself as open-minded, but adds: “You have to have a good argument and convince me that I’m wrong and you’re right, or that there’s another way of looking at an issue.”
She reflects on her performance as an MP “daily, sometimes hourly. I’ll look back after I’ve done a speech in the House and think about my mannerisms – did I stand up straight, what was I wearing?
“Those are surface things but they’re important to a viewer who flicks past a Facebook feed and decides to go ‘Stop’ or not. And then I’ll go back and look at the content, how I said something – did I make any mistakes? Did I say the right thing? And I’ll think about that next time.”
She’s studied Winston Peters closely. “I call it Learning from Winston 101. He’s just the consummate politician.
“I saw him in a debate in Gizzy, the first debate I ever went to. Winston kept on saying things like, ‘Hang on now, this is important’, and ‘Hang on now, people need to hear this’ and everyone went, ‘Well, okay!’ [she mimics sitting upright and paying attention]. He would do that over and over again.
“The other thing he would do is keep throwing out statistics about stuff. They may or may not have been completely accurate, but it didn’t matter. One young man came up afterwards and he said, ‘I googled everything Winston said and it was all wrong’, and I sat there and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it didn’t matter, Winnie’s already won.’
“So I go on Back Benches [the TV politics show hosted by Wallace Chapman] and I only have so much time to speak and everyone else is trying to get in and I’m trying to control the whole place, so I go: ‘Hold on now, hold on, Wallace, this is important!’ and he goes: ‘Okay, carry on.’ And I’m like, ‘Woohoo!’
“I watch to see what works and learn from the good stuff.”
The Peters anecdote says a lot about Fox. She’s good fun and doesn’t take herself too seriously – which is not to say she’s not deadly serious about politics.
Is she politically ambitious? “Um, I’m in the Maori Party,” she replies, as if that automatically negates lofty aspirations. “We would have to change the fabric of this nation for us to ever be the party of choice, to be the government or the prime minister.”
But in the next breath she outlines exactly such a scenario. It would take 36 years – 12 election cycles – but she reckons the Maori Party can become the party of government. “I seriously do. I’ve plotted it out.”
In her vision, New Zealand would gradually move to its own unique form of governance, one that would abandon the Westminster model in favour of Maori customs, principles and values.
“I asked when I first came in is this a reality or is it a pipe dream? Because if it’s a reality, how are we going to get there? What’s the strategy? Are we ever going to get there, or are we always going to think in three-year cycles?
“I’ve back-mapped it. I’ve thought, ‘Okay, what’s it going to look like? How long is that going to take? What are the major legacy pieces of policy in each election cycle that we would need to get through to shift the nation?’”
Her ideal constitution wouldn’t all be about Maori. It would be “super-diverse”, in line with her party’s constitution, which says the party exists for all citizens. But there would be a moral obligation to Maori as the indigenous people, based on the Treaty of Waitangi.
It’s a radical vision that she says is inspired by the thinking of Professor Whatarangi Winiata, the late Ranginui Walker, Rangimarie Turuki (Rose) Pere and Sir Mason Durie – “all of those great intellectuals who have been guiding the pathways of Maoridom for many years”.
She’d be in her eighties by the time her vision came to fruition, so there might not be anything in it for her personally. “But I do think that if we believe in it, then we need to march towards it.” And she argues that the critical step in shifting New Zealand thinking – in addressing what she calls unconscious bias, institutional racism and structural discrimination – is to make the Maori language a core subject in the country’s schools.
People look at things differently once they’ve acquired te reo, she argues. “It’s a world view. The Maori world view is different and that’s expressed in the language. The language unlocks our history and our thinking.”
THE LANGUAGE NEST
Learning to speak Maori was a crucial step in her own journey. The daughter of a Pakeha father and a Maori mother from the Wairarapa, she grew up in a home where no Maori was spoken.
Her parents had met at Church College, a Mormon secondary school near Hamilton. They married young and split up soon up after the family moved to Christchurch, where Fox – the youngest of five children – spent her childhood.
She has described growing up in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon environment. She and her siblings were the only Maori pupils at Elmwood Primary, and the situation wasn’t much different at Christchurch Girls’ High School, where there were about 10 Maori girls and the principal warned them not to hang out together because they looked like a gang.
She feels comfortable in the Pakeha world.
“As I tell people all the time, I’ve been completely assimilated, colonised. I grew up in Fendalton, lived in a house next to Mona Vale [a grand turn-of-the century homestead], studied French and Latin, went to Elmwood, Heaton and Christchurch Girls’.
“I know how the other half lives. My best friends had Royal Doulton figurines that we would put on the record player and make dance around. I didn’t think that world was any different from mine and they enjoyed coming to my place just as much as I did going to theirs.”
But as Fox told the Maori magazine E-Tangata, on visits to her mother’s Wairarapa whanau she would see the old people on the paepae talking in te reo, nodding and laughing and singing, and she would be frustrated at not knowing what was being said.
Further exposure to the Maori language came through her mother’s work as an educationist in Christchurch. “My mum would go to the marae and run these courses for pre-school/early childhood practitioners, and do Maori stick games and songs that they could teach to kids, so I was always around that.
“I knew that I was Maori but I didn’t understand that was different to anyone else. It was just part of who we were.”
It was in Masterton as an 18-year-old mother taking her baby to kohanga reo that she began to acquire the language. The rule was that no one could speak unless it was in Maori.
Keeping quiet wasn’t an option for someone as irrepressible as Fox, so she began to learn. Her first word in Maori was “rapeti” (rabbit) from the Maori version of the children’s song Run Rabbit Run.
At kohanga reo, she says, Maori knowledge was valued, te reo was treated as a taonga and children were told on a daily basis, “‘Your ancestors were great, it’s good to be Maori’ – which goes against everything they would otherwise hear in the media.”
A pivotal event was hearing Donna Awatere Huata – then a leading Maori activist, later to become an Act MP whose political career ended in disgrace with a fraud conviction – speak in 1990 at the first World Indigenous People’s conference in Ngaruawahia.
“She just amazed me. I had never heard a Maori woman – or any Maori for that matter – speak so eloquently and so strongly and so proudly about being Maori. I was just so impressed. She also talked about how to know me is to know my language – with language comes history, comes tikanga, comes culture, so the language is the key to it all. So I learnt te reo at kohanga reo with my son.”
Other factors in her politicisation sprang from personal experiences uncomfortably close to home. Fox tells of being ignored or treated with an attitude bordering on contempt when she tried to buy pricey items from Masterton shops, where the assumption seemed to be that she couldn’t afford them; of her school-age daughter and her friends being followed around a local department store by staff who clearly regarded them as prospective shoplifters; of being stopped herself by police as a teenager and being pushed up against a fence while walking home with her boyfriend – there had been a burglary and they were automatically suspects.
That, she says, was her introduction to politics with a small “p”. “People here [in Masterton] had grown up with that behaviour and accepted that that was the way things were. It was routine.
“So when I started speaking out about it being completely wrong and unfair, people were like, ‘Oh, my goodness’ – first, because I dared to speak up about it and, second, because I recognised it as wrong when others thought it was just the normal way of life.”
But just getting angry, while it’s a phase many Maori go through, doesn’t solve things, she says. “If you grow up in a mainstream education, you’re not taught Maori history, you’re not taught about colonisation and the effects of that – about land confiscation, unfair incarceration of people who then died incarcerated, all of those sorts of things.
“So then when you learn about them later, as a young adult, your natural instinct is to be angry and think, ‘Why don’t I know this? How dare this happen to our people?’ And to get past that, to where most people eventually get to, you go through activism, and to get past that you go to the stage of saying, ‘Right, what can I do to achieve change?’
“Everybody’s trying to find a place in the system where they can make systemic change for our people so that we grow up understanding that being Maori is not a deficit, that it adds value to who you are – and to our country, I think.”
INSPIRATIONAL MAORI WOMEN
Another inspirational figure for Fox is her ancestor Niniwa-i-te-rangi, a leading figure in the kotahitanga (Maori unity) movement in the late 1800s.
“She was a woman of great renown. There’s a picture of her in Aratoi [the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History] when she was quite elderly, with long grey hair, probably about 60. Sitting next to her is her husband, half her age.
“Behind her are her staff, all Pakeha. She had a sheep farm and she raced horses. In fact, someone phoned my mother last year and said, ‘We think we’ve got one of your people here, in a picture at Trentham racecourse above the fireplace.’ We suspect it’s Niniwa, although I haven’t yet been there to verify it.
“She had to claim the right to speak on marae, because not everyone could just go and do that. In order to get that privilege, it’s reported that she marched out in the middle, lifted up her skirts and peed into a bowl. She drank her urine then threw it at the feet of the men and said, ‘If any of you men can do that, I’ll sit down and shut up.’ She then launched into her talk.
“She was eloquent. She knew her history and her whakapapa, she could tell the stories of her people and she was powerful and bold.”
Fox compares Niniwa with Ranginui Walker, whose tangi she attended the day before our interview. “He was unashamedly and unapologetically eloquent in saying the things we needed to hear, and he said them so simply, so concisely and so precisely.
“Sometimes we have to say what needs to be said and not shrink away from it. And that’s difficult, because you get cut down for that. And that might challenge our own people, but our own people need to be challenged about some things.”
Niniwa, Princess Te Puea, Dame Whina Cooper, Eva Rickard – why is it, I ask Fox, that so many inspirational Maori leaders are women?
“Do you know what I think that comes from? Motherhood and mothering. It’s quite difficult to be the mother of nine children, and those are skills that can be translated to and utilised in Parliament.
“When you can multitask and manage all that while you’re also managing a job, when you might also be cooking at the marae for 50 or even 500 people … if you can do all those things, mate, there’s not much you can’t do.
“You learn to roll with the punches and make whatever adjustments are needed very quickly in order to get to the outcome. You have to learn to do that just to get by. I think those are underestimated skills.”
‘THE PAIN OF CHILD MORTALITY’
Speaking of motherhood brings us to Fox’s other passion: children and the family. In her maiden speech she talked of the need to build a country where children were not plagued by hunger, reared on a diet of drug- and alcohol-fuelled parties, schooled by people who didn’t know how to pronounce their name or harmed by those supposed to protect them.
“In Wairarapa, we know the pain of child mortality and tragic death,” she went on. It wasn’t knowledge gleaned from newspaper accounts – her own whanau was involved.
Some of the victims of the 1992 Judds Rd massacre in Masterton, in which unemployed shearer Raymond Ratima killed seven members of his extended family, were Fox’s cousins. “They lived just through the alleyway from us. Three of those babies were in our kohanga reo.
“One of them was the same age as my son and his best friend, and they used to come through the alley and play on our corner. I looked after them and had been with them the day before they were killed.”
Ratima had been in her house. “I didn’t recognise any signs that he was about to do what he did.”
In Parliament, Fox recalled the seven coffins lying on the marae surrounded by grieving mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers. “The other picture that will haunt me is that of one large open pit where all seven coffins were lowered into the open grave because seven graves side by side could not be dug with strength enough to hold up the wall of earth.”
There were familial connections too with 23-month-old “Lillybing” Karaitiana-Matiaha, fatally abused by a relative in 2000, and half-sisters Saliel Aplin and Olympia Jetson, murdered by their stepfather in 2001.
“Even Coral Burrows,” Fox continues, referring to the six-year-old Featherston girl bashed to death in 2003 by her mother’s P-addicted partner. “My uncle’s wife is her aunty.
“They’re all connected; so are all Wairarapa Maori. And we have to change.”
That hideous chain of violent child deaths, Fox says, “snapped us out of our small-town naivety and made us much more aware of what’s going on in our neighbourhood.”
Family violence isn’t just a Maori problem, she says, but Maori are disproportionately represented in the statistics and need to take ownership of the issue.
In that maiden speech, Fox quoted a Mormon hymn called When There’s Love at Home, which extols the virtues of a loving, secure family environment. But how can governments go about ensuring that?
It’s something she’s thought about a lot. “I sat down with a group and said, ‘How do we create a family violence bill that advocates for love at home?’ I wanted to call it the Love at Home Bill. Seriously. Because if we could do that, we could address so much stuff.
“I think our system forces families apart. You get more money on the DPB than you do if you’re a family together. That just encourages people to separate.”
By strengthening families, she says, we strengthen society. “We don’t have to be on a soapbox in Parliament to change society. We just need to raise good families in a loving environment that can then flourish into the world.”
She’s harsh in her assessment of the child welfare bureaucracy and cautiously welcomes Social Development Minister Anne Tolley’s recent release of a review recommending a radical overhaul of Child, Youth and Family.
CYF needs to be completely blown apart, she says bluntly. “Horror stories come across my desk from people who have been alienated from their children, whose children have been put into the care of known abusers.
“I’ve seen evidence of records being changed, reports being written, in order to alienate parents from children. And what we know from all the data is that if you’re a CYF child, you immediately go to the bottom of every statistic and social indicator.
“You did nothing wrong to be a CYF child, yet you’re being punished for it by poor systems and poor performance and people covering for themselves rather than putting the child at the centre.”
Fox was four when her own family was fractured. She was brought up by her mother, whom she describes as a pivotal influence.
Her father moved to Australia not long after the marital breakup. For years she had no contact with him – “not deliberately, but you grow up not having him in your life and just forget he was there”.
But her children wanted to know who he was and that triggered a reconciliation. “He watches what I do and I’ve got to know him. I’ve been to see him a few times.
“It is what it is,” she says of her relationship with him, in a voice that conveys both regret and resignation. “He’s elderly now and I don’t know how many more years he will have on this Earth. It is what it is,” she says again.
Towards the end of the interview, I apologise for the fact that it’s taken so long. I know she’s keen to catch up with old shearing mates and to put politics aside for a couple of hours.
“That’s fine,” she says. “I could do this all day – you might have noticed.” And you suspect she truly could.
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