From tribal politics to the world stage: New Zealand’s pioneering foreign minister

Nanaia Mahuta is sitting in her office, on the upper floors of New Zealand’s parliament. It’s a squally autumn day, but the sun is bright outside the window. The bookshelf behind her is filled with artefacts and mementoes, many of them gifts from around New Zealand and the Pacific. “Ask about any of them,” she says. “There’s a story behind each.”

On the lower shelf rests the carved walking stick that belonged to her late father, Sir Robert Mahuta. It was from him, and her mother, that Mahuta first learned the practice of politics. She says her earliest political memories are of her father battling the construction of the monolithic Huntly power station, when she was around eight years old. “I was grown and nurtured in an environment where tribal politics, and tribal aspirations, tribal development and opportunity through economic development was very much the norm,” Mahuta says. “[It was] the discourse that we had within our household,” she smiles, “and around the dinner table.”

It was a David and Goliath battle – one of many that Mahuta bore witness to. Later, her family was at the fore as Māori fought for New Zealand’s government to pay compensation for the mass confiscation of indigenous land. Her father was lead negotiator for the Waikato Tainui tribe as it sought reparations for stolen land and atrocities committed during colonisation. He successfully negotiated the first settlement of its kind in New Zealand history: $170m for stolen land, and a formal apology from the Queen.

Then a young teenager, Mahuta was there in the background, watching and helping with research. “We made the cups of tea,” she says. “And saw these meetings happening around us, and listened, and again became socialised to the challenges of the time.”

Now, New Zealand operates in a global landscape with its fair share of battling Goliaths. Years spent in the midst of those negotiations have prepared Mahuta for the task of representing a small island nation on an increasingly tough world stage.

Six months into her role as foreign minister of New Zealand, Mahuta faces an international political environment fraught with challenges. New Zealand is attempting to hold itself above the fray of tensions between China, on whom it depends for trade, and its traditional security and diplomatic allies – Australia, Britain, and the Five Eyes. New Zealand’s current stance, of keeping a strong trade relationship with China, while still carving out space to criticise its human rights record, is proving increasingly difficult to maintain. There is also turmoil closer to home. The country’s relationship with Australia, its closest and longest-standing ally, has been strained by conflict over deportation of New Zealand-born residents. In the Pacific, the climate crisis threatens the future of small island nations. And everywhere, Covid has cut off the traditional, face-to-face mode of conducting foreign policy relationships.

It’s a tough environment to wade into. And New Zealand’s government is depending on the craft Mahuta has honed over several decades – a politics of negotiation, reconciliation and reckoning with uneven power balances – to serve the country internationally.

An indigenous perspective on foreign policy

One of the Labour government’s most experienced lawmakers, Mahuta has deep connections to the Kingitanga [Māori monarchy] movement, and a background in negotiating settlements between Māori and the crown. “She’s used to negotiating, and she’s not used to negotiating from a position of overwhelming strength,” says Ben Thomas, a political commentator and former National government adviser to the minister in charge of treaty settlements. “That’s obviously something that’s well-aligned with New Zealand’s place in the international order: we are not a country that can exercise a lot of power through realpolitik or through military or economic might. Our influence has been, almost by definition, soft diplomacy.”

Māori political commentator and ex-Labour campaign manager Shane Te Pou calls it “a type of negotiating that’s not just about I win, or you win – it’s about we win. And it’s a form of diplomacy that has held her in good stead.”

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne receives a hongi from minister of foreign affairs Nanaia Mahuta
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne receives a hongi from Nanaia Mahuta. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

As the first indigenous woman to hold the foreign minister position, Mahuta’s selection made international headlines. When she took the job she said she would bring an indigenous perspective to foreign policy. “People shouldn’t underestimate how meaningful it is for other indigenous people around the world to see her in that role,” says Annabelle Lee-Mather, executive producer for The Hui, which documents Māori current events and politics. “A wāhine [Māori woman] with a moko kauae [sacred facial tattoo] – what a powerful thing that is for all indigenous people.”

Over the past six months she has been building a clearer picture of what an indigenous perspective on foreign policy will look like. Mahuta opted to make her first major speech as foreign minister at Waitangi, the site where New Zealand’s foundational treaty between Māori and British settlers was signed. There, she outlined how that partnership – and the long road to reconciliation that has followed it – would shape the approach the country now took on the world stage.

Mahuta told the Guardian that New Zealand can offer some of that approach to reconciliation to others. “I think we can offer that experience to other countries who have indigenous peoples – not as a template, but as a way of thinking about how self-determination can be realised, but also how there’s nothing to fear.”

That experience also provides an outlook for addressing international tensions more broadly, she says. “These are long-term challenges. We’re not going to address these things overnight. But how can we work together?” she says. “That partnership discourse is currently the place we are in right now. And I think that’s a good thing.”

‘Steely resolve’

In New Zealand politics, Mahuta has developed a reputation as a hard worker and a quiet achiever.

“I think Nanaia – and I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense – she is a policy wonk,” Te Pou says. “She understands the issues. She reads her briefs.”

Te Pou first formed that impression 26 years ago, when he was on the selection panel that chose Mahuta for her first political candidacy. An older, more experienced candidate was favoured for the position but Mahuta delivered a polished, deeply researched presentation. “She swayed the selection panel, and just won us over through sheer intellectual robustness and oratory,” he said. In the decades since, that impression has bedded in.

“Nanaia strikes me as someone who is absolutely dedicated to her work,” Lee-Mather says. “Someone who isn’t there with the sort of ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude that a lot of politicians come to parliament with. She is very focused on her mahi [work], she is across the detail, she has very clear expectations about what she wants to achieve.

“At the same time, she also has a steely resolve, and can’t be bullied into submission.”

Nanaia Mahuta at the hikoi for the foreshore and seabed in the grounds at parliament in Wellington in 2004
Nanaia Mahuta at the hikoi for the foreshore and seabed in the grounds at parliament in 2004. Photograph: Ross Setford/Getty Images

That resolve may be required, as New Zealand tries to carve out its independence from powerful international parties.

In March, New Zealand came under fire from British MPs for saying the country was “uncomfortable” expanding the remit of Five Eyes to wider foreign policy stances – a comment some saw as “backing away” from the alliance. Then earlier this week, Mahuta’s comments on China caused a stir in Beijing: she told the Guardian that New Zealand could find itself at the heart of a “storm” of anger from China, and exporters should diversify to ensure they could ride out a less-rosy relationship.

In her first speech on the relationship between the two nations, Mahuta likened China to the dragon, and New Zealand to the taniwha – supernatural creatures of the Māori tradition, often guardians of water. The two creatures, she said, were symbols of the two nations’ values and traditions – different from one another, but both worthy of respect.

“The taniwha, like the dragon, has the ability to understand the essence of its environment and changing conditions – as well as the ability to adapt and survive,” she said. “After all, as custodians and kaitiaki, taniwha are intrinsically linked to the wellbeing and resilience of people”.

From the window of Mahuta’s parliamentary office, the water of Te Whanganui a Tara harbour is gleaming. According to Māori tradition, the harbour began as a lake. One of the taniwha who lived there, Ngake, felt he had outgrown his longtime home. He created great waves, and eventually smashing through the rock wall that separated him from the sea. From the upper floors of parliament, you can see the waves cresting.

So far, New Zealand’s foreign policy is more oriented to avoiding unnecessary ripples. It’s still to be seen whether the taniwha of Mahuta’s metaphor will make any waves of its own.

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