Opinion: Mahuta adds Māori influence to traditionally Pākehā foreign affairs

Maiki Sherman
Source: 1News

It was just over a year ago now the voice of Nanaia Mahuta echoed through Government House.

Leading her caucus colleagues into the grand hall where they would be sworn-in as new ministers, Mahuta, a direct descendant of the Māori King Movement, delivered a karanga.

During the Māori chant at the welcome ceremony her voice carried across the room with conviction and humility.

It would set the tone for her impending tenure as the country’s first female Foreign Affairs Minister.

It was the moment Mahuta announced she had arrived.

Her appointment unsurprisingly however raised eyebrows with some.

Not because she hadn’t earned the role but plainly and very simply because she is Māori – and a Māori woman at that.

Try as one might to plead a case to the contrary but the reality of racial bias, whether conscious or not, is no longer up for debate.

The question a year later is, how has she performed so far?

The tug of war between China and the United States of America has always put New Zealand in a tricky position.

As the two global giants continue to flex their muscle, Mahuta is dancing a diplomatic tango with both.

It includes moving with precision in the form of concise and delicately worded statements.

At times that leaves those of us watching from the sides confused and demanding greater clarity.

What’s important then is to read the body language and subtleties, which is more often than not where the real moves are being made.

Key to any tango of course is also holding eye contact.

In political speak that means ensuring we as a nation don’t blink.

The pressure on New Zealand to pick a side has grown and it’s not only coming from China and the US, but other Western allies as well.

In her first year in the job there have been numerous instances where Mahuta has been forced to reassert our country’s independent foreign policy.

Earlier this year she opposed a move by our Five Eyes partners – including the US, UK, Canada, and Australia – to expand its remit beyond pure intelligence sharing to then issuing statements condemning China on human rights abuses.

That snub saw us slammed and labelled Communist-loving loyalists by some critics.

New Zealand, however, issued its own criticism of China including its abuse of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

It sparked a similar backlash, with China this time accusing New Zealand of putting one’s nose where it doesn’t belong.

The reassurance there is we must have the balance about right when both sides are crying foul.

So, from encouraging exporters to diversify away from an overreliance on China, to barely mustering a shoulder shrug at not being invited to join the AUK-US security pact between Australia, the UK and US –Mahuta has not flinched.

With conviction and humility – as arguably the most unassuming Cabinet Minister – the Hauraki-Waikato MP has held the line.

That’s not to imply she intends to maintain the status quo across her portfolio generally.

In fact, the opposite is true as she’s quietly gone about introducing a new bow to New Zealand’s foreign agenda.

With the sacred markings of her people etched upon her chin for the world to see, Mahuta is moving to brown up what has traditionally been a white space in foreign affairs.

She has just wrapped up her first official overseas tour which involved visits to seven countries including Indonesia, Canada, and the US.

The trip was centred around Te Aratini – a festival of indigenous and tribal ideas – held in Dubai as part of the World Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates.

It was the first festival of its kind at a world expo and co-hosted by Māori bringing together first nation peoples to discuss shared challenges and aspirations.

In her opening address, Mahuta said indigenous people had untapped potential to offer the world.

She framed Te Aratini as the start of a conversation and said it should launch “continued indigenous involvement in international affairs” to create a world that embraced “radically inclusive prosperity”.

Turning to address an UAE Minister directly she encouraged new trade relationships between Emirati and Māori and rounded it off by saying “let’s talk”.

The Aotearoa indigenous ex-factor garnered a warm local reception toward the Māori business and cultural delegation of Te Aratini. A member of the royal Sharjah family, Sheikh Majid Al Qassimi said his people weren’t interested in “transactional business” and that any trade opportunities with Māori would likely be intergenerational given shared values.

Mahuta herself enjoyed a warm welcome from her UAE counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, who chauffeured her in a golf buggy in a diplomatic joyride around the expo venue.

The indigenous theme continued on in Canada with Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Marc Miller, later tweeting their interactions had pushed him to “reflect on my work from a different angle”.

Mahuta was also granted a rare audience with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who was said to be intrigued to learn more about Māori.

All of these are examples of the untapped indigenous potential the minister is working to help unleash.

It also adds to the recent achievements from New Zealand’s hosting of APEC – the regional economic forum for the Asia Pacific.

As part of that New Zealand kickstarted negotiations on an Indigenous Peoples Economic and Trade Cooperation Arrangement with several APEC economies.

The aim is to bolster two-way indigenous trade and greater engagement with governments.

All of this is a bold and exciting new feature of New Zealand’s foreign affairs offering in a space which for too long, according to Mahuta, has been largely dominated by Pākehā interests.

As for critics who suggest she is now simply putting the aspirations of Māori ahead of others, the response is that pushing for greater inclusion of Māori will only help strengthen our united global brand.

While her predecessor in the role Winston Peters was also Māori, it can be said he did not advanced Māori interests in the same way despite having held the foreign affairs position on two separate occasions.

However, where he did excel may very well be where Mahuta struggles.

Winston Peters in his usual charming self to all but the media, helped strengthen New Zealand’s position globally by forming warm personal relationships with counterparts such as Indonesia and Japan.

That may not come as easy to Mahuta with her more modest mannerism.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered her work in some ways including only now being able to travel abroad, in many other ways Mahuta has initiated significant advancement in her portfolio.

So, while there will be plenty more challenges ahead, it’s fair to say the country’s first female Foreign Affairs Minister is breaking glass ceilings - and doing the same for others.