We’re meeting in her office. It’s austere, though she does have a nice teapot. The view is startling. One can map the Bowen Triangle, though the teapot is still more interesting. A group of pink faced men are running across the rain soaked streets. I think they’re lobbyists, I do hope they get wet. Views like this work on two levels: distraction and confirmation. You can stare into the distance and contemplate the universe or you can look below and let reality sink in – you live in a tightly packed bubble.
Not that Metiria Turei would fall for a view. She didn’t come to Parliament to embed herself in the Bowen Triangle. “I came with the view of speaking for everybody who was completely ignored. There is a huge body of Maori who have no voice at all. They are the ones I wanted to speak about in Parliament and, hopefully, represent well in Parliament”.
Speaking – person to person or politician to the people – is something Metiria does very well. “I might babble a bit” – she’s talking person to person here – but babble isn’t right. Turei speaks in tunes. I had to resist the very Maori impulse to let this Maori woman’s maternalism wash over me. I’m here to conduct a serious interview, dammit. Yet her energy is infectious. It’s not so much an energy that makes you want to get up and go, but a hypnotic energy. This doesn’t translate on TV. Metiria comes across as too earnest on screen. But it’s much easier, person to person, to spot the genuine conviction and then respect it.
Shifting roles and shifting circumstances is the story of Metiria’s life. “I’m one of those people who lives in the crack. The crack between the Maori world and the Pakeha world. When you live in the crack, sometimes it’s an unpleasant place to be, sometimes it operates well as a bridge”. I didn’t say this out load, but I’m thinking it in my head, unpleasant seems like an emotion Metiria finds hard to express. Her smiles are easy and often. Her face is round and inviting, not angular and cold. A stranger would never guess that she sometimes works 18 hour days. Her face refuses to reveal any age lines.
“I come from a working class Maori family, but we had a very strong upbringing… we were the household where everybody would come and stay if they were in trouble, particularly financial trouble. There was a constant flow of people… My parents, at the same time, wanted to create a middle class life for us. On the outside we had a very flash house, but on the inside it never had any carpet or anything”.
It’s roots like this that make Metiria an unconventional politician. Politics isn’t a career option, it’s a responsibility she has to her people. “I’m now in a very privileged position”, she tells me, “I can get on the television and I can call out Jamie Whyte… that’s the job I’ve got to do because other people can’t”. This is a theme we keep returning to – speaking for those “who have no voice at all”.
I ask whether this grinds her down. I know from experience that it can suck to always be on the wrong side of the majority. “Unfortunately they still hold the power. You just have to keep on fighting”. This reassures me. But don’t take this as a suggestion Metiria looks for political scraps – they find her. Yet she refuses to play the victim. She isn’t the sort to keep a closet full of wet hankies.
“You do have to have a thick skin. At the same time you can never have a thick enough one. At times it can feel like you’re being completely flayed”. Flayed seems like a strong word, but given the year Metiria has had I’m surprised she didn’t choose a stronger expression. Politics is blood sport, after all.
“It’s nothing compared to what they’re doing to everybody else”. True, but it understates the sort of criticism Turei has had to suffer through… Personal criticism. Metiria Turei the person, not Metiria Turei the politician, is fair game. It gives new meaning to the saying the personal is political. It inverts the rules of engagement too: play the ball, not the man becomes play the woman, not the ball.
You’ll remember the controversy from February. Anne Tolley led an extraordinary attack against Metiria in the House. The first battle – dubbed “jacket-gate” – erupted when Tolley declared that Metiria, as middle class woman in a designer jacket, couldn’t claim to speak for the working class. Metiria’s jacket became the measure of her political credibility. Tolley channelled Judith Collins who had, only last year, accused Metiria of wearing “hideous” jackets.
I know what you’re thinking: these people really are petty. They really are, but there’s more. In the latest attack Jamie-Lee Ross used his speaking slot in the House to savage Metiria’s dress sense. The pattern is clear: play the woman, not the ball. Bonus points for doing so under Parliamentary privilege.
Metiria’s response, far from being personal, has been political. “People hated the fact I called it out as racism. They could see the implied classism and they could see the implied sexism but they could not see the implied racism. People would say ‘yeah, of course it was sexist… BUT it’s not racist’”.
Metiria returned fire, but in a way that got under her opponents skin. Rather than availing herself of the enemy’s weapons – personal politics – she exploited what they left unsaid: the political context. Politicians must remember, she explains, that “it’s not actually about you”. “It’s not me they’re attacking… As a genuine challenge to their power and authority, of course they’re going to make awful accusations and do hideous things”. (“Hideous” being a reference to Judith Collin’s attacks). In other words, it’s the idea of an effective Maori woman that Tolley, Collins and Ross are attacking.
Thus Metiria is dangerous because she is making a political critique. “[Racism] affects Maori every day”, I’m nodding furiously at this point, “and in all sorts of ways that can’t be named”. We’re back at that theme again: speaking for those “who have no voice at all”. The job of an effective politician, then, is to name what the victims can’t. Calling out racism, classism and sexism – rather than being a tired trifecta of isms – is a challenge to the government’s mind set. If Turei is seen to “babble” about it, it’s because she has found the government’s soft spot. I think this is a testament to Metiria and person and Metiria the politician – that ability to transform the personal to the political.
Personal to political. It’s another theme that keeps popping up. Metiria didn’t come to the left through historical materialism, Lenin’s theory of imperialism didn’t drive her left, it was whakapapa that did it. “We” – meaning Metiria’s whanau – “didn’t speak about politics at all, but you can’t help but know that people are being done over. The question then becomes what do you do? What we did is take care of people. The connection between being compassionate about people’s needs and being political melded together”. “My upbringing gave me the narrative”.
She’s drawing me into that maternal glow again, but for a different reason now. Here’s a kindred spirit. “At the end of the day no government ever paid attention to the people I’ve cared about”. These are words which could have come from my own mouth. “No government has put their interest at the heart of what is done”. And this is why I trust Metiria. She hasn’t lost touch with her roots. She reaches for her teapot, which I only now notice is green, and my gut is telling me to vote Green.