Author Wira Gardiner. Published 2014 by Huia Publishers, Wellington with the assistance of the Maori Purposes Fund Board. ISBN 978-1-77550-162-6.
Reviewed by Ross Himona
I almost reviewed this book as soon as it was released but given what I have to say I thought I’d wait a respectful period.
But first a declaration of interest. Wira Gardiner the author has been a friend for longer than we both care to remember; since 1963. He has also quoted me in the concluding chapter. Notwithstanding our long and close friendship we have no problem whatsoever about disagreeing with each other’s views, so I will not hold back on the criticism if I feel the need to do so.
I suppose the one comment that most describes Parekura Horomia is that made by Hekia Parata in her foreword, “He was a good man …”.
He was inarticulate in English and Maori but he communicated, he was way overweight and didn’t look after his health, he neglected his family in pursuit of whatever it was he was pursuing, he was a flawed man but he was a good man. I can agree with that despite the fact that I was often perplexed in my dealings with him.
But I too was one of the many thousands he addressed as “Chief” and was disarmed by it even though I knew he was blowing smoke, if you know what I mean.
This book describes all of that. But mostly it is a tribute to Parekura by the many whanaunga, friends and colleagues whose memories of him make up the bulk of the book. At the launch of “Kia Ora Chief’ at Parliament House in 2014 I spoke to Brian Morris, co-owner of Huia Publishers. He told me that they had to edit well over 100 pages from the first draft of the book because the recollections of Parekura were so repetitive. So many people remembered the same stories about Parekura.
Perhaps that was partly because Parekura himself told the same stories about himself over and over again. How many of us remember the story of the school bus for Pakeha kids that passed by the Maori kids walking to school. Perhaps it was also because he did the same things for so many people over and over again.
What comes out of the book is that Parekura compartmentalised his own life so that you only knew what he wanted you to know, and what he wanted you to know depended on what part of his life you inhabited. He was in effect constructing his own heavily edited story as he lived his life and that is the story he left in the memories of others. It is the story that Wira Gardiner has had to recover from those memories, for Parekura left no written record of his story. There is nothing to contradict the story he constructed; no letters, notebooks, diaries or papers. He was a paperless man. And a very private man despite his huge public profile.
And therein lies the mystery. What was it that Parekura Horomia didn’t leave to be told. What did he tell the trusted others that they are not telling. If there is a weakness in this book that is it. Although presented by the publishers as biography it is memoir rather than biography, albeit a well written memoir. There remains yet an untold story. The whole story and perhaps the real story. I shall explore that theme later.
There can be no doubting however the achievement of the uneducated and inarticulate country boy and family man from Mangatuna who became a successful senior public servant, Minister of the Crown, trusted confidante of a Prime Minister, and much loved champion of the ordinary people of Aotearoa New Zealand. The turnout to his tangihanga, described in the second chapter “Death of a Rangatira”, was testimony to that achievement. Close to 12,000 people came to Hauiti Marae to farewell him.
The book had its genesis in 2006 when Labour Party Parekura and his friend National Party Wira Gardiner discussed the idea of a book about his life that Wira would write in time for the 2008 elections. Parekura never got around to providing any material, written or recorded, and it didn’t get done. At his tangihanga Wira promised Parekura’s sons that he would write it and he kept his promise.
It chronicles all of the phases of Parekura’s life from his childhood and schooling at Mangatuna, through his early working days as a printers apprentice, fencer and shearer, to working with and then for the Department of Labour for twenty years, and then as a member of Parliament for over thirteen years. Gardiner describes those phases as his three whanau groups, the first being his whakapapa whanau in the broadest sense (family and tribal), the second the Department of Labour and the third the Labour Party.
Some parts of his life are shown in greater detail than others, probably reflecting the quantity and quality of interviews. There are chapters on his life at Dannevirke, on his love of rugby, and a whole chapter on his family’s close relationship with an immigrant Scottish family he met at Dannevirke. As might be expected about 60% of the book is about his time in the Department of Labour and as an MP, including chapters on the two controversies during his time as Minister of Maori Affairs; Maori broadcasting and the seabed and foreshore debate. Both were trying times for Parekura and are described in detail.
What was not covered was the other major event that happened on his watch, the 2007 Police paramilitary assault on Ruatoki and on the house of Parekura’s mate Taame Iti at Taneatua. Those so-called “raids” were sanctioned by Helen Clark and one would have thought that she might have sought the advice of her trusted principal Maori advisor Parekura Horomia. We are none the wiser about whether or not he had any part in that fateful decision and its aftermath.
The book would not be complete without the chapter “A Chronic Asthmatic with an Enlarged Heart” about his many health problems and his inability or unwillingness to address those problems.
The strength of the book lies in the hundreds of anecdotes told about Parekura, many of them quite delightful and often amusing, skilfully woven into a collective memoir. It seems that everyone who knew him had a story to tell about him, including myself (pp 431-2). The people recalled his generosity and his ability to reach out and communicate with ordinary people, as well as with those in positions of influence. They spoke of his loyalty and love for his people, and much more. He was by common consensus a good man.
But I go back to the mystery. Who was this man, really?
He left no personal paper trail but he did leave an enormous paper trail in the Department of Labour and in the departments he led as minister. In the Department of Labour he was responsible for tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and other payments to communities up and down New Zealand. He probably didn’t put pen to paper except to sign off his decisions but that paper trail will still be there; a complete record of his grant giving, and a complete analysis of that might be quite revealing. Interviews with the recipients of those grants might also be revealing. I know from personal experience that as a minister he often gave off-the-cuff koha to various causes leaving his departmental staff scrambling to find the money from somewhere. The record of that koha giving might be quite interesting.
Who was this man, really? This man who spent the whole of his public life criss-crossing the country getting to every hui and gathering he possibly could, hardly pausing for breath or so it seemed to many of us who ran into him almost everywhere we went, to be greeted by his “Kia ora Chief”.
What caused him to be generous with his own money to the point that his own family often came second? What drove him to run so hard that for decades his family saw far less of him than his staff, colleagues, constituents and the public at large? Politicians’ families are notoriously neglected but Parekura seemed to run harder than all of them. What drove him to run so hard, to totally neglect his health and to drive himself into an early grave? What was he running from?
We know that he was dedicated to serving the ordinary people but there was something else. He was chasing something. He was seeking something and it drove him. Was it the age old cultural pursuit of mana. Was it that simple, or something much deeper. From the outside looking on it seemed that the man was driven by something deep within. What was it?
In this book we didn’t learn much at all about the private Parekura Horomia. We know that he was a complex and complicated man but after reading the book we have still not delved into the depths of his character. He remains a mystery. There are no doubt those who knew him well and who are not telling; not many but some. They are probably not his family. They are probably the few very close and trusted people who worked with him over the years and remained totally loyal; people like Meka Whaitiri who served him faithfully for many years and after his death replaced him as the MP for Ikaroa Rawhiti.
There are others I know who have more to tell about their encounters with him, both personal and professional, who have decided to honour the man and to remain silent.
They will probably never share the real Parekura Horomia with us. This book then is all we shall know. It faithfully records the Parekura Horomia he and his loyal following wanted us to know. The rest has gone with him to the grave. The story he has left is nevertheless an inspiring story of how a Maori boy from the country overcame almost insurmountable odds to reach one of the highest offices in the land and how he came to be universally loved.
I enjoyed his story.