Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox on their literary influences

by Jane Clifton / 11 September, 2017
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Flavell and Fox: little time left for reading, rest and relaxation. Photo/Getty Images

For the Maori Party’s Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, contemporary waiata and kapa haka keep them in touch with community concerns. 

Marama Fox’s happy place is on horseback, but regardless of the inscrutability of the polls, she is not planning to ride off into the sunset.

The Maori Party co-leader is a late convert to riding, but since her family took in a friend’s rescue horses, she’s been in the saddle as often as possible. She never rode as a child, but now canters, trots and gets up to a “pretty good gallop. I feel the rhythm of it and I just love it. Only thing is, I’m just not game to do any jumping.”

For Fox and fellow co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, these pre-ballot-box times are anxious but increasingly hope-filled weeks.

Flavell does his contemplating from his happy place, early morning fishing trips in a waka ama (outrigger canoe). “That’s a great love of mine. I go pretty early, because it’s no good once the [motorised] boats arrive and stir up the fish.” Galloping and paddling one’s own waka – these are resonant images in today’s politics. “I get some interested looks from the boats, too,” Flavell says gaily.

This caucus of two has held an almost alchemistic position in Parliament, extracting major policy wins from a Government that is, on paper, antithetical to it. The demands of iwi and Beehive politics leave them little time to engage in restorative pastimes, less still for reading anything but the ever-replenished stacks of officials’ reports, background papers and news reporting indispensable to MPs. But therein lies a clue to the party’s internal vibe.

Te Ururoa Flavell. Photo/Getty Images

Flavell cites just a few books on Maori history – including memoirs by former Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia and former Labour MP and Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia – as being all he’s read since becoming a minister, but says although he’s “not a good [book] reader”, politics has found him out as a natural subeditor and fact-checker.

“When I’m reading my papers, I always pick up mistakes. I don’t know what the officials think about it, but I’ll find all the spelling mistakes and wrong facts, all the things to query. Perhaps that’s an ex-schoolteacher thing. But that’s part of what I do in our party. Marama provides all the drama and I come along behind and fill in the detail.”

Drama? Fox is only half-joking when she boasts of outperforming her kapa haka group, “even though they put me in the second row!” Famously extrovert, she says she tends to take on the mood of the dominant fictional character she’s reading about, be it a tragic heroine or a conquering protagonist. Again – possibly good news for National – she reckons she hasn’t read more than one of her beloved sci-fi or historical novels in the past year. She still adores reading for pleasure and escape, “but given the work I’ve been doing, if I jump into bed with a book now, I’m asleep within two minutes. I actually use books [to guard against] insomnia.”

As a toddler with his parents, Jim and Mīria Flavel. Photo/Flavell family collection

As a toddler with his parents, Jim and Mīria Flavel. Photo/Flavell family collection

In the fantasy genre, Fox enjoys Paullina Simons and Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust series. She rejoices in the similarities she sees between the wry Irish humour of Marian Keyes’ stories and the humour and storytelling of Maoridom. Maori parallels with the renaissance of the Irish language are cause for optimism, she says.

There’s probably as little modern Irish-language fiction as original fiction in Maori, but that’ll change. “It’ll probably be a generation before we have novels in te reo, but it’ll happen. We’ve got kids growing up with a real proficiency, and they’ll have the confidence and breadth of expression to do beautiful work.”

Marama Fox in 2017. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

The advance guard for that, she says, is the flowering of contemporary expression in waiata and kapa haka. That’s as good as a constant newswire for Flavell on his ministerial visits around the country. “You know what people are concerned about in each community, because they’ll sing about it or do a haka on it. Be it methamphetamine or pollution of the local river, they’ll let you know, and not just by talking about it.”

It’s a form of communication Pakeha ministers miss out on. Fox recalls, “I was with John Key … [in 2016] watching the kapa haka. I told him, ‘Hey, there’s a lot about you in this!’ And then I had to say, ‘Actually, I don’t think you want all of it translated.’”

Both co-leaders unhesitatingly rank spending time with whanau as their most treasured moments. Flavell relaxes by doing garden maintenance and light DIY at his family home. Fox loves painting on canvas or wood – “contemporary Maori art, free-flowing and crazy”.

At press time, Flavell was readying to tender the Crown’s apologies this weekend to Rua Kēnana and Ngā Toenga o ngā Tamariki a Iharaira for the 1916 police invasion of their Tuhoe homes at Maungapōhatu. Flavell was approached by descendants of the Iharaira (Israelite) faith about the possibility of a pardon for Kēnana – pursued by the government of the day for supplying alcohol to locals, among other petty acts.

Four-year-old Marama stands between sisters Vanita (left) and Kim. Photo/Fox family collection

Four-year-old Marama stands between sisters Vanita (left) and Kim. Photo/Fox family collection

Flavell has read extensively about how the state bore down on these followers, including with lethal force. Their movement is now all but extinct. But it’s clear that for him, the possibility of some redress for this wrong and the chance to delve into Maori history make for a sweet spot where one’s happy place and the demanding job of politics occasionally coincide.

This article was first published in the September 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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