16 Oct 2022

Adrian Rurawhe: The accidental Speaker

From The House , 7:30 am on 16 October 2022

You may have noticed that parliament has a new speaker. You could call him the accidental speaker. It's certainly not a role he sought out. Quite the opposite. But knowing his story you might also think his background and experience have provided the ideal training. Quite accidentally.     

Adrian Rurawhe is the Labour MP for the Māori electorate of Te Tai Hauāuru which covers the west of the North Island from Tawa to Te Awamutu.

He doesn’t much throw himself into the limelight and so is not well known outside his wider rohe, but it is useful surely to know a little of parliament’s new landlord, spokesperson and chairman. 

Let's begin with the beginnings and move on to politics later. Though you will note that somehow it is all a little bit politics. 

Scenes from the election of Adrian Rurawhe as Parliament's Speaker

Photo: Phil Smith

The Railway Years

Adrian Rurawhe is of Ngāti Apa iwi, but was born and raised outside their Manawatū/Whanganui heartland, in Taihape, where his father drove steam engines for New Zealand Rail. Taihape was a key stop on the Main Trunk Line and rail was the major business in town.    

“Growing up within a small rural community, the railway families all stuck together. It was a really neat little place to grow up. I really enjoyed my childhood.”

When Adrian Rurawhe passed School C (the first in his family to do so), his dad decided he was now ‘job ready’ and organised him a job – on the railways of course – but in the clerical office, away from the shift work he had endured as a driver.

The young Rurawhe quite took to the role and eight years later (1986) he was working on payroll at Railways' head office in Wellington. 

It’s hard now to envisage just how encompassing rail was in New Zealand at the time. It trained every trade it might need internally rather than contracting any roles. It had engineers, trainbuilders, plumbers, electricians, catering, everything. Even hairdressers.

Governments used it to soak up unemployment. When Rurawhe started work, there were around 20,000 employees. 

In the late 1980s a wholesale restructuring drastically downsized Railways, and for his final two years he spent all his time processing final pays. It was a ‘pay run’ they processed every day.

“The last one I did was my own, in September 1991.” 

By that time about 75 percent of the Railways workforce had gone. 

“You can see it had to happen. I don’t know if it needed to happen the way it happened. You probably wouldn’t do that today.”

Rurawhe was given the option of taking redundancy or a ‘partial pay-out and pay-cut’ combo. He opted for the full redundancy because he had another dream it could enable – to learn te reo Māori.

no caption

Photo: RNZ / Russell Palmer

The inheritance of traumatic loss 

Adrian Rurawhe did not grow up speaking Māori. His parents spoke to him only in English. Their parents had spoken to them in Māori but they had always replied in English. As far as Rurawhe knew his parents spoke no Māori.

He didn’t learn otherwise until the 1980s when a language resurgence had begun. 

“I came home one day and my mother was on the telephone speaking to someone. I got the shock of my life – she was speaking in te reo Māori on the phone, and I thought. ‘What!’ I didn’t know.”

His grandparents had been punished at school for speaking Te Reo and so had made their children reply in English at home to protecting them by ensuring their fluency.

“You can see how a trauma in one generation can be transferred to another. That’s basically why most of my age-group have not learned Māori. It’s not my native language.”

Learning Te Reo and then using it

To learn Māori Adrian Rurawhe returned to his turangawaewae, to Whanganui.

But having learned te reo he needed to use it, so he volunteered to help out on the board of a local kura and ended up chairing it.  

It turned out he wasn't just useful for book keeping, he was good at governance. Good enough that a little while later he found himself elbowed into chairing his own iwi.  

He was (he agrees) being thrown in at the deep end and remembers thinking “Oh, I better learn this pretty quickly. It was at a time when some pretty big kaupapa were happening.”

Big indeed. His iwi were knee-deep in negotiating the Sealord fisheries deal and also beginning negotiations for their treaty settlement, which he also chaired.

At this point Rurawhe was in his late 30s. He agrees it was terrifying but a privilege. 

“[It was] probably one of the most awesome things I’ve ever been involved in. And I never want to do it again. Probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.

"A process where you’re constantly questioning yourself about ‘is this the right thing to do’. You know the magnitude of a ‘full and final settlement'. That what you negotiate– that’s got to form the basis of the economic development of your iwi from that point forward. You’re not going to get a second chance.”

Ratana Temple, Te Haahi Ratana Fri 24th January 2020.

Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

Family politics 

Rurawhe was not an outsider coming into iwi leadership. He was imbued in politics from an early age, with a family legacy in both the Labour Party and the Rātana church.

His mother was heavily involved in local politics, having been born into it. Both her parents had been MPs for Western Maori. 

First Matiu Rātana (who won a seat his brother Toko Rātana had previously held), and then when Matiu died tragically, his wife Iriaka Rātana took it on (she held the seat for seven terms). When Iriaka retired the seat was taken up by Koro Wētere who was an adoptive uncle.

“During election time we’d have all sorts of people come and stay at our house, because that’s what they did. Politics was always a topic of conversation in our house.”

Rurawhe’s tīpuna were also central to the Rātana church (who have long been strongly political and aligned to Labour). 

Sidenote: It will be useful later in the story to know that when Toko Rātana won Western Maori (originally as an independent Rātana MP before aligning with Labour) he joined another Rātana MP – Eruera Tirikatene (Southern Maori). Tirikatene was the founder of another political dynasty. He served an extraordinary 12 terms in parliament and was followed by his daughter Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan (a further 10 terms), and after a pause – the current MP for Te Tai Tonga, Rino Tirikatene. More on that later.

A host of flags accompanied the many thousands of marchers protesting against foreshore and seabed legislation in 2004. On the right is the first New Zealand flag; also prominent is the tino rangatiratanga flag, a flag of self-determination, designed in 1989–90. Photograph by Michael Hall. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, MA_E.003515. p285 Photo:

A box-seat for ‘Foreshore and Seabed’

When Tariana Turia campaigned to take the local Māori seat, her cousin Adrian Rurawhe was, as you might imagine, heavily involved, and ended up working in her office.

In fact he didn’t seem to be able to quite escape politics. When he instead took a job with Te Puni Kōkiri he was seconded to Turia’s ministerial office. It meant he was in the box seat to watch the ructions that occurred over the Foreshore and Seabed legislation (which was incidentally sparked by a court ruling involving Rurawhe’s iwi).  

I suggest to him that it was also probably quite an education. “Ooh, it was,” he agrees with a chuckle. “I know things.”

“I was with her for the three days leading up to [Turia’s] resignation. So I know what happened. I know who did what. It was a challenging time, especially for her and her immediate family.”

When Turia resigned as a result she returned to Rātana for support and contested the by-election and Rurawhe again chaired her 2004 campaign, then her 2005 campaign. 

You might imagine that he was getting weary at this point - after all, he’d run three election campaigns in three years. “I was tired of politics,” he says. 

So he pulled back and focused on his iwi’s treaty settlement, which he saw through to a successful conclusion.

Back into the bearpit

Despite running Turia’s campaign as an MP for Te Pāti Māori, Rurawhe stayed aligned with the Labour Party. He explains that he, like many other Māori, split their votes to support Turia as the local candidate while still giving Labour their party vote.

Rurawhe says he would never have stood against his cousin, but then Turia retired from parliament. 

“I had no intention of standing, at all!”

A group of Labour Maori MPs listen to the Prime Minister announcing her post-election cabinet line-up, (from left) Kelvin Davis, Peeni Henare, Kiri Allan, Willie Jackson, Adrian Rurawhe and Rino Tirikatene.

A group of Labour Maori MPs listen to the Prime Minister announcing her post-election cabinet line-up, (from left) Kelvin Davis, Peeni Henare, Kiri Allan, Willie Jackson, Adrian Rurawhe and Rino Tirikatene. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

But then in 2011 Rino Tirikatene won the Te Tai Tonga seat (the modern successor to Southern Maori, a seat held by two previous Tirikatenes). Rurawhe says people saw that as a sign. 

“People started chattering about ‘Oh,well, if [a Tirikatene’s] come back, then the other family can come back too’.” 

The first time he saw Rino Tirikatene after his election success was at the annual Rātana hui in January 2012.

“He comes around shaking hands with everyone. He gets to me. He doesn’t even say hello, he just says ‘you’ve got to stand’, and then moves on.” Rurawhe remembers his reaction with a laugh as “argh, what are you talking about? God!”

But stand he did, leaving another new career he was really enjoying; running a Māori research institute. But having decided, he gave it his all.

“If I’m going to do it, I’m all in, or I’m not going to do it at all. Yep.”

And soon enough he was back in politics and an MP, this time Labour was in opposition, which was a perfect place to start and learn. But he didn’t arrive with any rosy misconceptions.

“I knew what I was getting into. I’d been around enough, so I had no illusions about what this place was about. I knew that relationships were really important, and being true to yourself.”

The road unchosen: a.k.a. "pulling the Jacinda card"

When Labour returned to government in 2017 Rurawhe was presented with a choice of jobs he could take in the parliamentary set-up. 

“I was offered junior whip or assistant speaker, so I chose junior whip.”

He had actually already taken up a whip role just prior to the election when the leadership changed; so he already had his feet under the desk and was doing the job when (Leader of the House) Chris Hipkins phoned and told him ‘Jacinda wants you to reconsider’.

“Oh, you’re pulling the Jacinda card are you?” He chortles. “I just said to him, ‘well, I’ve always thought you’ve got to be a team player'.”

He agreed on condition that he could stay on the Māori Affairs Committee and close to the consideration of treaty settlement legislation (an area of particular expertise), and he wanted to check that the incoming speaker Trevor Mallard was OK with him in the role.

It turned out it was Mallard who had specifically requested him.

Rurawhe has long believed you learn more on the paepae by sitting with the kaumātua and kuia. He had done the same at parliament, often sitting alongside Mallard and asking what has happening and why. Mallard would have him consult the relevant Stand Order or Speakers Ruling. 

It seemed that Mallard had decided he had the nous and the procedural interest to be useful helping out in the chair.

Again he was in at the deep end. He admits it was again a steep learning curve but he had many of the necessary requisites, including this one...

“I’m actually not afraid to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. And I’m not going to cover it up either. I think – it is what it is; if you make a mistake just fix it up and don’t do it again.”

The newly elected Speaker Adrian Rurawhe attends Government House for confirmation from the Governor General

The newly elected Speaker Adrian Rurawhe attends Government House for confirmation from the Governor General Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The speaker stylings of Adrian Rurawhe

He sees his approach in the chair as similar to how David Carter described himself – as a ref who lets the play run and doesn't lean on the whistle. But he also has his own way of doing things.

“For me, the way the house runs is in the collective hands of the house, and I should just preside over it. I have, since becoming the speaker, tended to let things run.”

He notes that even when a question is against the rules a minister will often still want to answer it. He has allowed them to do so. (Mallard tended to intervene when questions strayed outside the rules.)

Opposition MPs who see this as a gift should be wary though. Rurawhe notes that these things go both ways.

They might get away with including assertions in their questions to ministers that Mallard would have disallowed. But having asked a question outside the rules they will be inviting answers from ministers that are equally outside the rules.

“And I’m going to probably let [ministers respond to those assertions], on the basis that the [MP who] asked them knows what they’re doing. And if they don’t know what they’re doing they just need to tell me or tell the house and I’ll say ‘well, in the future, when you do that I’ll rule it out of order’.”

It's an approach that could be described as ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ or ‘be careful what you wish for’. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

He puts it like this: “You can’t demand a robust question time where the robustness is only on one side. It has to be both sides”.  

His hope seems to be that this approach will ultimately lead to MPs being more self-governing, not constantly pushing the boundaries until the speaker is forced to intervene, to wrest the house back to the expected behaviours.