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Politics | Te Ao with Moana

Tamatha Paul and James Meager: what it means to be Māori in Parliament

It’s been 155 years since Aotearoa New Zealand’s first four Māori MPs were elected to Parliament.

Now, with 33 Māori MPs forming part of the 54th Parliament, Aotearoa has more Māori representation than ever before.

These members are spread across the major parties- Labour (nine), Te Pāti Māori (six), Greens (six), National (five), NZ First (four) and ACT (three)- and were elected from both the general and Māori electorates, as well as from the party lists.

Despite this record number of Māori MPs, several proposed new bills may soon see a reduction in the level of Māori representation on important issues across the motu.

Te Ao with Moana’s Hikurangi Kimiora Jackson sat down with some of the new Māori MPs to talk about their dreams and aspirations during their time in Parliament and what it means to be Māori.

National MP James Meager (Ngāi Tahu)

National’s James Meager (Ngai Tahu) has been dubbed a rising star for the party and was elected as the MP for Rangitata at the 2023 general election.

Before entering politics, the self-proclaimed ‘principled pragmatist’ managed National MP Chris Bishop’s parliamentary office in 2015, served as a press secretary for then-deputy prime minister Paula Bennett and as adviser to then opposition leaders Bill English and Simon Bridges.

He has also worked as a senior solicitor with Simpson Grierson in Wellington and Christchurch.

Since entering politics, Meager has described how the struggles of his upbringing heavily influenced his worldview.

But it was his maiden speech about his early life and his challenge to opposition parties not to ‘claim voters’, that launched him into the national spotlight.

“Perhaps to some I am a walking contradiction — a part-Māori boy, raised in a state house by a single parent on the benefit, now a proud National Party MP but there is no contradiction there,” Meager said.

‘What counts is whakapapa. And that’s it’

“Members opposite do not own Māori. Members opposite do not own the poor. Members opposite do not own the workers.

“No party and no ideology has a right to claim ownership over anything or anyone.”

While many in the mainstream media praised Meager’s speech, many Māori felt it was a betrayal, with some calling him an “Uncle Tom” or “race traitor”.

This didn’t bother Meager, who said he didn’t subscribe to the idea that, “unless you fit a particular view of what it is to be Māori, then you don’t count”.

“Just because I say I’m part-Māori, I get put into a group, which means I think this way,” he said.

“I just don’t agree with that. I think what counts, if you want to identify as Māori or not, is whakapapa. And that’s it.”

When questioned about what being Māori meant to him, Meager said it wasn’t something he’d thought much about.

“I really can’t answer that question because we all grow up in different backgrounds and I’ve never really taken the time to think about that myself,” he said.

“Maybe being in this place will give me the opportunity to do that.

“If I want to explore that and figure out what that means for me, then I probably can build that into my diary.”

Greens MP Tamatha Paul (Ngāti Awa, Waikato Tainui)

The 27-year-old ‘Māori girl from Tokoroa’, Greens MP Tamatha Paul, has been described as a “politics wunderkind” and a “breath of fresh air”.

Paul was the first wāhine Māori to become president of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association, the second-youngest person to become a Wellington councillor, the first Māori MP for Wellington and the youngest Green Party MP.

Asked about her stunning victory over Labour’s candidate Ibrahim Omer, Paul said her success was thanks to a deep curiosity to understand “why things are the way they are”.

“I’ve always been really curious about why people make the decisions they make and who has the power and who makes the decisions,” Paul said.

“I’ve just been asking a lot of questions my whole life, and that’s meant I’ve been able to do lots of activism mahi, to challenge authority and power.

“The communities that I come from, they like that, so I do that for them.”

Urban Maōri disconnected

Paul talked about how the majority of Māori were now urban Māori living in cities, which meant many felt a sense of disconnection from their iwi, hapū and whenua.

She said she’d been through a similar experience and felt it was important to talk about.

“There’s that mamae when we can’t speak our reo or we can’t recite every line of our whakapapa and I know that’s most of our people,” Paul said.

“It’s important they see themselves represented in their leaders and they see us trying to use and protect our reo, no matter how much or or how little we have of it, and see they are Māori enough.”

While most would assume being a politician was one of the hardest jobs out there, Paul said it was her humble fast-food job in her formative years that had challenged her the most.

“My hardest job I ever had and the job that taught me the most in life, was working at KFC for four years while I was at school,” Paul said.

“It taught me a lot about people and how I can listen, how I can communicate with people, how I can work in a team, about dealing with emotions and handling conflict.

“It is those low-paid jobs doing the real mahi in our community and these are all the things I learned while literally serving my community.”