First published on Thursday the 10th of March, 2016, this piece comes in at number 24 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.
Five Women. Five Questions. Five Days.
Who: Marama Fox, co-leader of the Māori Party
Why: If you needed someone to fight your corner, Marama Fox would be it. She’s feisty and headstrong. She believes in breaking the cycle of “poverty of mind” and she’ll do everything she can to keep this Government, and those that follow, in check.
Marama Fox is a lot of things – wife, mum to nine kids, political leader, former teacher, lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The list goes on. What she is not, is a shrinking violet.
That was glaringly obvious when she burst onto the political scene in late 2014, taking her place alongside Te Ururoa Flavell at the helm of the Māori Party. She made no bones about her party’s relationship with National, admitting in one interview that she had concerns. And she wasted no time in putting forward a private members bill seeking to change the wording of the parliamentary oath so that MPs could choose a vow to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi.
But then she went quiet. So much so, I wondered if she was regretting going into politics, a bit like Pam Corkery admitted when she quit the game back in 1999 saying she struggled with “aspiring to be shrewd”. I wonder if the Fox finds the same and whether it’s just too difficult having to watch what she says. Is she being silenced?
Fox is in Wellington and I’m in Auckland. I’m guessing that because we’re doing this interview over the phone, it’ll take no time at all to rattle through these five questions. Wrong! As for being silenced, wrong again! In fact, Fox has so much to say and she’s so eloquent, it would do her a total injustice for me to prattle on, so I’m handing this over to her…
Who has been your greatest inspiration in politics?
One of my biggest female political inspirations was Donna Awatere-Huata. I first heard her speak at an indigenous conference. She just absolutely blew my mind. I had never heard a Māori woman, let alone a Māori man, speak the way she did. She was so powerful and passionate. She said ‘To know me is to know my language’. She spoke about the relevance and the importance of Te Reo Māori in our culture. She opened my eyes to the idea that we should be standing up for our language, our tikanga and not apologising for that.
The other person who always encouraged me to be the absolute best I could be was my mother. Don Brash went to Orewa and he told the country that Māori were privileged. I thought for a long time about that, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to let him own us with that word’. I realised I was privileged, but my privilege was being born to a mother who taught me that I could do anything.
Our father had left when I was four, so she wanted us all to be independent women. She took me to junior mechanics when I was 13 and I learnt how to change oil and spark plugs, and how to pull apart an engine and put it together again. She always pushed us. She said, ‘You’re always going to be harshly judged because of the mere fact you’re Māori, so you always need to do your best and not just that, figure out how to do it even better than that’.
So I was never short of self-confidence but when I heard Donna speak the way she did, it occurred to me - this is not something we have to apologise for. I became very vocal from that point on.
What’s the single biggest issue facing Māori women in 2016 and what can be done about it?
I get into trouble when I answer this question because people say ‘Who are you to make those claims?’ But the more I speak about it, the more people will have the conversation. What I talk about goes something like this – yes we have poverty of the hand, but what’s worse is poverty of the mind. We need to break the cycle of poverty or that thought ‘This is all we deserve’. ‘This is as much as we can accomplish’. If we don’t believe in ourselves, then we will always be trapped into a cycle of poverty of mind.
When people talk about the glass ceiling and women having to break that ceiling, Māori women have to smash the bush ceiling first. There are a number of tikanga – I’ll get slammed for saying this again, but that’s ok let’s do it - there are a number of tikanga that we adhere to as Māori women that came from a time when the cultural conditions or the physical conditions were different. So for example, I’ve always been told women couldn’t speak on the marae because it was the place that men should protect them from the barbs and arrows that might come across the paepae. But I think about that in today’s terms and actually, women have been doing it hard on their own for a long time. Many women are filling the place of both mother and father and doing bloody good jobs. And yet, all these cultural conditions still exist where women need to take a back seat.
Now this is not about whether women should have the right to speak. Across the world, women are inhibited by their cultural customs. We are not talking about female genital mutilation or anything like that, but I wonder if we don’t hold back as Māori women when we should be pushing forward. Māori women need to break that poverty of the mind and start to soar.
…Remember my five question rule? Well I break it again, because it’s here that I’m reminded by the word that kept being mentioned in my interviews with Jane Hastings and Diane Foreman – choice. And I realise that many women do have choice, but there are also those who feel they don’t. I put this to Fox.
It’s a place of privilege to say everybody has the same opportunities. They don’t. Just because you give everybody the same field to stand on doesn’t mean the four foot person is going to be able to see over the five foot fence.
Have there been days since you became an MP where you thought, ‘This is not for me, I don’t like this?’
There are days when I’ve really felt the pressure of the challenge but not a time when I’ve not been able to get out of bed and face it. My life has changed immeasurably and things do get tough occasionally. But I’m a mother of nine. I’ve pretty much faced all things. There’s not a lot more anybody can do to me. I’ve got five boys, they argue with me just for fun. We call that a good night out in our house. And they don’t hold any punches.
I’m not blowing my own trumpet but you have to be pretty special to deal with the competing issues of having nine children while working. It’s not that I’m any more special than anybody else, but you learn to adapt and become highly flexible. You learn what needs to be done in order to get by.
You came into parliament with a hiss and a roar but we’ve not heard all that much from you in the last year. What are you going to do in order to be heard over the noise in 2016?
It is really difficult. I’m on TV, radio or in print almost on a daily basis but it might be Māori media. We don’t get a lot of mainstream pick up, which I find really disconcerting because actually the National Party has grown from our relationship with them.
I actually think that when you look over the 10 years that the Māori Party has been in parliament, we’ve diminished in popularity. Our voice is hard to hear above the noise. Our policies that we push get adopted as their [National’s] own and not as ours, so all of that is difficult.
What I’ve said to Bill English in the coming year is, ‘I don’t care if it’s your ministers that apply a policy, but I want to make sure it’s something that you give us credit for.’ So this year is going to be a year of claiming our space. There are a lot of irrational fears, and they are born out of a fear that Māori will somehow do what’s been done to them. That is not true. We want to live in a country where we recognise our duality of nationhood and in order to push that rhetoric forward, I have to find a way above the noise and one of those things is to push this Government to have greater social good.
I don’t know that any politician in the house today understands what hardship is. So we need to push this Government and any successive government to ensure that they think of all people and not just the economic benefit of one end of the country.
Can you pinpoint a time in your career when you were your happiest and most fulfilled?
I thought you were going to ask the opposite of that question. I’m a religious person and one of the scriptures I hold to talks about having to know pain to know joy. So one of the greatest moments I had in my career came after very difficult times.
I went to the Christchurch School of Education following some very turbulent years of schooling. It was a time of growth and realisation of the dream of returning Te Reo to our kids, having them acknowledge that traditional knowledge was not something to be belittled but something to be embraced.
We start to wrap up our conversation, and I’m on a high. I’m inspired by what the impressive Fox has spoken about. She’s so passionate about, well, everything! I really do hope she finds a way to be heard above the noise, because it’s women like her that can truly effect change.
Fox has got a busy day, week, year ahead, and yet even as we’re saying our goodbyes, she’s still got more to say. She tells me she’d like to leave me with a couple of quotes.
“When we change what we do in our own homes, we’ll change society’. I absolutely believe that. The second is, ‘What we do in the four walls of our own home is our most important work - above all other jobs’. We can fail in our career but you can’t fail at home.
“Also, I think that people underestimate the transferable skills of motherhood. They have absolutely held me in good stead in every job I’ve ever done They help you to adapt, to be multi-talented and flexible. We can see motherhood as a hindrance but for me, the ultimate feminism is to be able to be a mother and for that to be ok.”
If she didn’t already have nine kids, I think I might just ask Fox to be my mum too. No offence mum – it can’t hurt to have two, right?