Parekura Horomia – ‘Kia Ora Chief’, by Wira Gardiner (Huia Publishers, 2014), 448 pp., $45
If there was ever an Apt Phrase Award about its subject in the title of a book, then this biography of Parekura Horomia, with its ringing ‘Kia ora, Chief’, would have to be in the running for top prize. However, I would also add that there is an equally appropriate catchphrase provided by ‘the Chief’ himself, in the way he readily greeted people with ‘Kia ora, everybody!’ For Horomia may have been the Chief, but he also stood with the ordinary people from whom he came. In the book, Gardiner invokes Māori politician Hekia Parata, when she worked for the ‘Chief’: ‘She remembered that he would give the same speeches over and over again, and they seemed to be well received every time – even on the third and fourth hearings, not unlike the time-honoured Monty Python skit: ‘Who’d a-thought 30 years ago …!’
The only thing that would change in the telling would be his age: ‘I’m a 52-year-old son of a labourer …’; ‘I’m a 53-year-old son of a labourer …’, and so on. Hekia parted company with Parekura when he had reached the milestone of, ‘I’m a 57-year-old son of a labourer …’ But she also remembers Horomia with aroha, because, although they were of different political persuasions, they were of the same whānau; and in her foreword Hekia gives their shared whakapapa: their aunty, ‘Mum Jane’, raised Parekura. Hekia finishes with the affirmation: ‘He was a good man, and we miss him.’
Therein lies the rub. Hekia Parata is now a most dis-liked and dis-trusted cabinet minister in the present elitist, market-driven National government (things which would have been an anathema to Horomia), while Parekura Horomia is a well-remembered person, who was respected and is still a well-loved ‘man of the people’. That is not to say that he didn’t have political rivals and enemies. However, even when the most divisive issues tested his most fundamental beliefs – such as the foreshore and seabed debacle, which radically affected the relationship between Horomia’s government and Māori – the aroha and affection for the ‘Chief’ still existed. Gardiner gives a good example of this, describing when Horomia was met with protesters at the hui at Maketu Marae, led by one of Horomia’s old friends, veteran activist Tame Iti. When Horomia accused Iti of insulting the Crown by his theatrical actions, saying he would ‘kick him up the arse’ if he pulled a stunt like that again, Iti replied: ‘No sweat, Chief. You know we have to have political theatre!’ Gardiner concludes that this was an example of the people venting their anger at the Crown through Horomia, as the Crown’s representative; that it also illustrated the exchange was not a personal thing; and that the humour in Iti’s reply signified both the theatre of the marae and his friendship for Horomia, despite the seriousness of the issues.
Parekura Horomia was born in 1950, and grew up at Mangatuna near the East Coast township of Tologa Bay. In the 1950s the East Coast was generally a prosperous farming district, with sheep farms providing, among other things, wool for the materials and clothes for the soldiers fighting in the Korean War. However, this prosperity was largely reaped by the Pākehā farmers, who either leased the land or acted as supervisors on the large holdings. Māori families like the Horomia whānau were left with small, self-sufficient plots with only a few animals and crops like maize, potatoes and kūmara. It is from this background that the previously alluded to ‘poor beginnings’ story was formed in the young Parekura’s mind, and while he played it to the hilt, there is actually a lot of truth in his oft-repeated declaration, ‘I’m a 50-something son of a labourer …!’ But, like most Māori, Parekura had a life beyond the ‘work-a-day’ Pākehā world, because his whakapapa was something that existed long before he did and would go on long after his passing, and it is in this world he truly existed.
In fact, Parekura Horomia had three main driving forces that influenced and supported him throughout his too-short life. His whakapapa Māori, which included his wife and other immediate family members, constituted the foremost aspects, which he understood and nurtured. The second big factor was his long and successful career in the Department of Labour, where he honed his skills for working within the ‘system’, and where he began to experience the power and effect of politics, not as a vain, empty, unrewarding aspect of social and political power, but as a man who understood that he could work pragmatically within the political structure to bring about change for the betterment of his people. And the third was the fulfilment of his political ambitions, when he became a cabinet minister in Helen Clark’s Labour government, where he was able to turn his vision into reality.
Among Horomia’s great personal strengths were his ability to continue to operate effectively under a very heavy workload, and his great popularity within the general population. For example, Essie Te Wairēmana Keelan, who, soon after Parekura had married her niece Gladwyn Kaa, was instrumental in urging him to work hard for his people early on in his career. She recalls how later in his career he was what she called ‘a very busy person’. She adds, ‘There were people in the streets, raggedy looking fellas and gang looking guys, and we would drive past, and they would yell out “Para!”, and he would shout out “Kia ora!” and wave to them.’ He was also instrumental in finding work for many of the unemployed in his Ikaroa–Rāwhiti electorate, particularly local gang members.
As was – and is – the case with many parliamentarians, Parekura Horomia’s career exacted a great toll on his personal life, and particularly when it came to his family. However, his whānau were proud of his achievements and his son, Waldo, said that Parekura wanted to be remembered for his ability to engage with people from all levels of society. Waldo says: ‘He used to tell me that he got into parliament and remained in parliament because ordinary people trusted him … When he was under great pressure, he responded well and refused to give in. When he came home, he rarely talked about Wellington. He just switched off.’
Kia Ora, Chief! is in no way an hagiography; rather, it is an affectionate, heavily anecdotal, occasionally critical but never vindictive insight into the life of a New Zealand politician who was a real ‘man of the people’, with all the ordinariness and imperfections that the term implies. However, told as it is by his many friends, whanāu and the ‘ordinary’ people, whether they be Māori or Pākehā – those whose lives Parekura touched – a picture of a ‘great’ listening New Zealand politician emerges, and one whom the present crop of self-involved, so-called ‘leaders’ could take a lesson from.
In her foreword, Parekura’s ex-boss Prime Minister Helen Clark warmly endorses this book: ‘May Kia Ora, Chief stand as a written record of this wonderful man.’ However, in a summing-up of Horomia’s tragically abbreviated political career, the biographer quotes from Derek Fox, who offers a somewhat snarky eulogy, suggesting that Parekura’s legacy has yet to be written but is unlikely to be extensive. While this may be the sour or bitter assessment of a disillusioned and possibly vengeful commentator on public affairs, a failed politician who failed to connect and whose own misanthropic legacy will never match that of a man like Horomia, I think it is put in the shade by the testimonies gathered by Wira Gardiner, and also by the determination of the indefatigable Huia Publishers, who have done us all a service in bringing to print the story of a man whose presence among us could perhaps be too easily forgotten, except by those who knew him well. Overall, this book honours him, and Parekura Horomia’s mana grows in stature the more we learn about him and his career on behalf of his people.
MICHAEL O’LEARY holds a PhD in literature from Victoria University of Wellington. He is a novelist, poet, literary historian, critic, small-press publisher and bookshop proprietor. He lives in Paekākāriki, north of Wellington.