23 Jul 2011

Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan dies

4:26 am on 23 July 2011

Former Labour MP and Cabinet Minister, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, has died at the age of 79.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan's family says she suffered a severe and disabling stroke 10 days ago and died in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

She was cremated following a private service in Wellington on Friday.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan entered Parliament in 1967, as the member for Southern Maori, in a by-election following the death of the former MP, her father Sir Eruera Tirikatene.

In her youth she was a New Zealand ballroom dancing champion and one of the country's top female fencers.

She gained a Doctorate in Political Science with a thesis on contemporary Maori political involvement, and went on to serve 10 terms as an MP.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan retired from politics in 1996 after she was narrowly defeated in the new Te Tai Tonga electorate.

She was made a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1993, New Zealand's highest honour.

She is survived by her husband Denis Sullivan; their two children and two grandchildren.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan's family plans to hold a public memorial service for her in Wellington, on Friday 12 August.

Political tributes

Senior politicians have expressed their sadness at her death.

The Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Chris Finlayson, says Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan was the longest serving woman in the history of New Zealand Parliament and held senior Cabinet positions.

Acting Prime Minister, Gerry Brownlee, says she was an inspiring leader and a genuinely great New Zealander.

Labour MP Parekura Horomia says Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan pioneered Maori development, and will be sadly missed.

He says Dr Tirikatene Sullivan was a strong fighter for the rights of Maori women, and a campaigner for good parenting.

Full obituary

Tini Whetu Marama Tirikatene, who was of Ngai Tahu affiliation, was born at Ratana Pa in 1932.

Her later education was at Rangiora High School and Wellington East Girls' College. She took a BA in politics and public administration and a Diploma of Social Sciences from Victoria University. Her education was interrupted when, at the age of 20, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent the next four years being treated in Wellington Hospital and at the Otaki sanatorium.

In 1964 she went to Canberra on a scholarship for a PhD in political science. She completed her thesis but was unable to present it - her father died and she returned to New Zealand to succeed Sir Eruera as the MP for Southern Maori in a by-election in 1967.

She held the seat in the 1969 general election with 82.95% of the valid votes cast, exceeding her father's record for the popular vote. The Southern Maori electorate was huge, stretching from Wairoa in Hawke's Bay to Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands, and she covered 40,000km a year on electorate business.

She added Sullivan to her name when she married Australian nuclear physicist Denis Sullivan in 1967. The couple had two children. She became one of the few women MPs in the Commonwealth to have given birth while holding office and the first New Zealand politician to do so.

After the Labour Party's victory in the 1972 election, Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan became the Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Social Welfare and Environment. She was the only woman in that cabinet.

Her tenure was not without controversy. In 1975, opposition MPs alleged she had a close commercial association with the the chair of the Tourist Hotel Corporation and in the same year she denied giving an interview criticising the Dunedin City Council for cancelling a sports booking of the town hall in favour of a meeting addressed by the National Party leader Robert Muldoon. The dispute went to the Press Council, which disallowed her complaint.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan campaigned to promote the Maori language, health, employment, and education, and fought long and hard for better Maori representation in Parliament. She was proud of her battle to retain the Maori parliamentary seats under the MMP electoral system, a battle which spilled over into the Labour caucus.

By 1994 her standing within the party caucus had slumped and three MPs failed to back her nomination to chair the electoral reform committee. At the time, Labour's relations with Maori were under strain and the row was smoothed over only after apologies were made. She saw the incident as a last chance for the Labour Party to retain Maori support.

She kept her hold on the Southern Maori seat until she was defeated in 1996 by New Zealand First Party candidate Tutekawa Wyllie. Mr Wyllie had been supported by Ngai Tahu leaders, one of whom - Sir Tipene O'Regan - had accused her of being an enemy of her own people. Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan believed the accusations were prompted by her insistence on full accountability of the Ngai Tahu Trust Board which Sir Tipene chaired. At the time of her electoral defeat, she had been 29 years in Parliament and was the longest-serving woman politician in the House.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan had sporting as well as political interests - she was a keen fencer and in the 1960s was runner-up in the New Zealand women's foils championship. And she was a New Zealand title-holder in ballroom and Latin American dancing, as well as being patroness of various Maori cultural groups.

She had a passion for encouraging young Maori to make contemporary clothing, jewellery and other handcrafts using Maori design. The boutique she owned in Wellington for a time developed from that. She had a personal interest in dress design and fabric printing, using ethnic designs, and she was often seen around Parliament Buildings in elegant gowns of her own design.

Dr Tirikatene-Sullivan was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, the 1990 New Zealand Medal, and the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal in 1993. She was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand in the same year.