Pāora Tūhaere is thought to have been born about 1825. His parents were Ātareta Tuha, the sister of Āpihai Te Kawau, and Whanararei, from Te Taou hapū of Ngāti Whātua. Te Taou cultivated land at Horotiu, which is now lower Queen Street, in the heart of Auckland city, but Tūhaere lived three miles away at the settlement of Ōkahu, at Ōrākei. He was not a warrior like his father, but was the chosen leader of Ngāti Whātua after the death of Āpihai Te Kawau. In 1841 he accompanied Te Kawau when the latter welcomed European settlers to Auckland. Thirty years later he attempted to maintain tribal ownership of the last Ōrākei land, and from the 1870s was a leading man in the movement known as Te Kotahitanga (unity of purpose), which aimed to achieve greater Māori control of Māori affairs. He sought these goals while following the Ngāti Whātua policy of allegiance to the Crown and friendship with the government.
Tūhaere became a Christian early in his life and took Pāora (Paul) as his baptismal name. He was active as an Anglican lay preacher in hapū and intertribal gatherings of an evangelical nature, and worked for peace. In 1844, with other Ngāti Whātua, he visited Whangārei and made peace with Te Parawhau people whom Te Kawau had attacked nearly 20 years earlier. In the same year he took part in the great Māori gathering at Remuera, Auckland, which gained concessions from the governor, Robert FitzRoy, by reasoned representations rather than by threats of force. During the Northern War he worked as a mediator to prevent an attack on Auckland.
In the 1840s Tūhaere, with other Ngāti Whātua leaders, became involved in the sale of land for the growing town of Auckland. In 1841 he was associated with the sale of land between Ōrākei and Manukau, and in 1848 with the sale of two further blocks, both on the Waitematā Harbour. In 1854 he sold the Pukapuka No. 2 Tāmaki block for £500; 10 per cent of the money from the resale of the land was to go to the establishment of Māori schools and hospitals, and for the building of mills. He sold the Onewherowhero Waitematā block in 1856 for £25. But Māori opposition to land sales was increasing. By the end of the decade the King movement had called for a ban on all further sales of Māori land, and Ngāti Whātua, though not active Kīngitanga supporters, were more committed to holding their remaining land.
In July 1860 Tūhaere participated in a conference of over 200 Māori leaders held at Kohimarama, near Ōrākei. The governor, Thomas Gore Browne, anxious to secure Māori endorsement of government policy over the Taranaki War and towards the King movement, emphasised the benefits gained through the Treaty of Waitangi. Tūhaere was among those who responded: 'The Treaty is right, but it came in the time of ignorance and was not understood. The assent of Ngāpuhi was given in ignorance otherwise why did they not consider that they had acknowledged the Queen instead of turning round and stirring with their own chief [Hōne Heke]?' Tūhaere went on to cast doubt on the understanding shown by Māori who had signed the treaty in places other than Waitangi. In his opinion, all Māori leaders should have conferred on the original agreement. 'But this [conference] is more like it; this is the real treaty upon which the sovereignty of the Queen will hang because here are assembled Chiefs from every quarter'.
In the Kohimarama covenant, participants pledged to do nothing inconsistent with Queen Victoria's authority. Tūhaere criticised the King movement as 'an unwarranted presumption', 'an upstart movement', but like other Māori leaders he hesitated to condemn it outright. Believing that Māori mana had to be maintained, he probably regarded the movement as not incompatible with Crown authority.
In 1863, at the height of tension in Auckland just before the Waikato War, Tūhaere purchased the schooner Victoria for £1,400; he intended to develop a Māori trade with Rarotonga and other islands in the south Pacific. Tūhaere and 20 of his people sailed for Rarotonga on 26 February. He was received as a rangatira and returned to New Zealand in April with a cargo of fruit and arrowroot. The Victoria also brought a visitor from Rarotonga, Kainuku Tamako. Since then contact with the Cook Islands, underpinned by ancestral links, has been sustained by Ngāti Whātua through periodic visits and by marriages.
After the death of Te Kawau in 1868, Tūhaere became the acknowledged leader of Ngāti Whātua. Unlike Te Kawau's son, Te Hira Te Kawau, he had an excellent understanding of government administration and the application of the law. He was confident in his dealings with Pākehā. Tūhaere had been made an assessor for the Auckland district, and in 1867 he was appointed to the Auckland provincial executive as adviser to the superintendent on Māori affairs. He became a trustee of the Ōrākei marae when the Crown vested the land at Ōrākei in 13 trustees in 1869. Ngāti Whātua were continuing to lead a communal life there, and Tūhaere wished to maintain tribal ownership and to prevent the individualisation of title. He succeeded in having passed, in 1882, the Ōrākei Native Reserve Act, which would have allowed the trustees to subdivide and lease tribal land to provide for Ngāti Whātua housing and development programmes. His plans for continued communal landholding were obstructed, however. In 1886 the Crown took for defence purposes land at Bastion Point that Tūhaere had intended for residential subdivision. The 1882 act did not prevent the individualisation of the Ōrākei block, and after Tūhaere's death the land was partitioned among the trustees and their heirs.
From the 1870s Tūhaere attended and often instigated intertribal meetings which aimed to represent the concerns of the Māori people to government and to secure some control over Māori affairs. He was aware of the need for Māori unity, and in 1869 he appealed unsuccessfully to the government to reconvene the Kohimarama conference. Ten years later, disturbed by government policies, he called a large conference at Ōrākei and kept discussion centred on the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi, to 'see whether the stipulations … are still in force or not'. Further meetings were held in 1880 and 1881; support grew for a Māori parliament which would replace the Native Land Court and through which Māori would rule themselves. The proposal, promoted by Tūhaere, was widely accepted by Māori. However, though a number of parliaments met through the 1890s they were not given the authority they sought from the government and lapsed around 1900.
As a leading member of Te Kotahitanga, Tūhaere was elected in 1888 to a national committee to represent Māori interests to the government. Tūhaere wished to hold the government to the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi and to use remaining Māori land as an economic base for the Māori people. At the same time he accepted that Māori were living under the rule of the European government and would not gain from confrontation with it. He worked to reconcile the King movement with the government after the wars of the 1860s. At the King movement conference at Whatiwhatihoe in 1882 Tūhaere encouraged Tāwhiao, the Māori King, to give up his isolation. The King embarked soon after on a tour of the North Island and appealed to Britain to grant Māori security of land ownership and self-rule. Tūhaere would have accompanied Tāwhiao when he and his followers took a petition to England in 1884, but was too ill to travel.
Tūhaere married twice. His first wife was Tūpanapana, a grand-daughter of Ngāpuhi leader Te Wharerahi; he was survived by his second wife, Harata, and a daughter, Mere. He died at Ōrākei on 12 March 1892. His funeral was attended by over 200 people. Tāwhiao addressed the gathering and referred to Tūhaere as 'one of the last of the old ones', and said that he himself would have to take his place. Tūhaere was buried at Ōrākei and a monument was erected to commemorate him. Although he still held a considerable interest in the Ōrākei land, Tūhaere left no will because he wanted the land to belong to the tribe. He left two written accounts: 'History of the Ngāti Whātua tribes' (held in the Auckland Institute and Museum), and 'An historical narrative concerning the conquest of Kaipara and Tāmaki by Ngati-Whātua' (published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1923).