Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan was New Zealand’s first Māori woman cabinet minister, its longest-serving woman MP, and a staunch advocate in Parliament for Māori interests. An accomplished academic, social worker, designer, sportswoman and dancer, she paved the way for women to combine a political career with motherhood. The Treaty of Waitangi and the Rātana faith were central tenets of her personal and political life, and her parliamentary career was focused on the abolition of laws that oppressed Māori. She was also a New Zealand fashion icon with a distinctive sense of style which drew upon her whakapapa and celebrated her love of Māori design.
Tini Whetu Marama Tirikatene was born at Rātana pā, south of Whanganui, on 9 January 1932. Her mother Ruti (Lucy) Matekino Horomona (Solomon) was of Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Pahauwera of Ngāti Kahungunu, Danish and Jewish descent. Her father Eruera Tirikatene was Ngāi Tahu, a descendant of the rangatira Tūhuru of Westland and of Motoitoi of Otago. He also had Ngāti Toa and English ancestry.
Eruera was one of the prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Rātana's political advisers, and the first Rātana (independent) MP elected to Parliament. He held the Southern Maori seat from 1932 until his death in 1967, from 1936 as a Labour member in a Rātana–Labour alliance. Before she was born, Rātana prophesied that Whetu would become a political leader and named her ‘Whetu Marama’ in an evocation of the Rātana symbol’s star and crescent moon.
Whetu was the seventh child of 12 and the eldest surviving daughter. From an early age, she was raised by her maternal grandmother Amiria (Miria) Solomon because her parents travelled frequently on parliamentary business. Whetu spent her early years in the exclusively Māori environment of Rātana Pā. Her early education at the Native School and personal interactions with Rātana set the foundations for her deep, lifelong, Christian faith.
The family lived in a number of places in the South Island during Whetu’s childhood, though she always regarded Rātana pā as her ‘real home.’1 At some schools she was the only Māori student, and faced discrimination for the first time. This experience made her determined to succeed in the Pākehā education system, and later to advocate for the teaching of Māori language, history and culture in all New Zealand schools. Outside of school she worked hard, digging potatoes, concreting, doing the laundry and driving tractors.
At Rangiora High School Whetu became a class leader. She excelled at shorthand, and in form five made headlines for typing at 240 words per minute – close to the world record. These skills proved valuable when she became an MP – she would produce her transcripts to challenge inaccuracies in the official record. She also played violin and cello in the school orchestra and was selected for the Christchurch Youth Orchestra.
When the family moved to Wellington in 1949, Whetu attended Wellington East Girls’ College, where she was a prefect. She joined Victoria University College’s fencing club in form six and became one of the top four women fencers in New Zealand. She also did occasional fashion modelling, designed jewellery and clothes, and won national titles in ballroom and Latin American dancing.
Working as an unpaid and unofficial assistant to her father laid the groundwork for Whetu’s future political career. While still at school, she volunteered as secretary and research officer for the Labour Party’s Maori Advisory Council and Maori Policy Committee – a role she filled for ten years. She also did secretarial work for the four Māori members and accompanied her father to tribal hui and official engagements. When she was elected to Parliament, she claimed to know practically every Māori family in the Southern Maori elecorate.
In 1949 Whetu began working as a stenographer at the Royal New Zealand Air Force Headquarters in Wellington, where her shorthand skills were soon sought out by the Public Service Commissioners for various commissions of enquiry. In 1951 she was seconded from the RNZAF Headquarters to the Royal Tour Office of the Department of Internal Affairs as secretary to the assistant director of a planned royal tour. She travelled with the royal entourage as a member of New Zealand’s official party when Queen Elizabeth II toured the country in December 1953 and January 1954.
The demanding tour schedule, work stress, and exposure to thousands of people took its toll, and Whetu was admitted to Wellington Hospital in April 1954 with tuberculosis. A four-year convalescence followed, first at the Ōtaki Sanatorium and then at the family home in Kaiapoi. During this period, she honed her interest in social work by acting as a spokesperson for other patients.
In 1958, Whetu was employed as a Maori welfare officer in Wellington by the Department of Maori Affairs. She also served as a child welfare officer in Rotorua and a social security welfare officer in Lower Hutt and Wellington. She continued to work voluntarily for the Māori MPs and studied part-time at Victoria University College. She graduated with a Diploma in Social Science in 1961 and completed a BA in 1965, majoring in Political Science and Public Administration. As women’s vice-president on the executive of the Victoria University Students’ Association (1960–61), and inaugural president of the Federation of Māori University Students, she advocated the teaching of te reo Māori and Māori Studies in New Zealand universities. In 1959 Whetu was made a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
In 1965 she was awarded a postgraduate scholarship at the Australian National University in Canberra, where she commenced a PhD thesis on the alliance between the Labour Party and the Rātana movement. There she met fellow doctoral student Denis John Howard Sullivan. By the end of 1966 the couple had decided to marry and pursue their respective academic careers overseas. Whetu’s studies ended abruptly in 1967 when her father died, and she was called home to replace him in Parliament.
Whetu returned to New Zealand in January 1967, and was selected as the Labour candidate to contest the by-election in March. The Southern Maori seat covered a vast area, from Wairoa in the north to Rakiura (Stewart Island) in the south. She convincingly won the by-election, and at 35 was the youngest woman to have been elected to New Zealand’s Parliament to that time. After being elected she returned immediately to Australia, where she and Denis were married in a small ceremony in a Canberra registry office on 18 March. Whetu took the surname Tirikatene-Sullivan.
In her maiden speech to Parliament, Whetu made clear that she was there as an advocate for Māori interests. Describing her father as her inspiration, she drew attention to the socio-economic disparities between Māori and Pākehā. She emphasised the importance of Māori education and the need for government policies to address the gap between Māori and Pākehā achievement.
Her early parliamentary career was spent in opposition, where she strongly opposed aspects of the controversial Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 which cut across the rights of Māori landowners. She supported the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board in its opposition to aspects of 1969’s Electoral Amendment Bill.
In 1967 Whetu was one of two Māori among the six women in the House. She immediately challenged some of Parliament’s patriarchal norms, including the exclusion of women from a visitors’ area in the House and from Bellamy’s bar. She pointed out that mothers of young children comprised 23 per cent of the adult population and should be represented in the House.
When her first child May-Ana was born in 1970, Whetu was the first member to give birth while Parliament was in session. She returned to work within weeks and cared for her daughter in her office, an arrangement then considered extraordinary. A second daughter, Lisa Marie, was born in 1972 but died at the age of three months. The birth of her son Tirikatene (Tiri) in 1974 is thought to have been the first to a cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth. Whetu contributed to the normalisation of the idea of women combining career and parenthood, paving the way for later parliamentarians and New Zealand women in general.
In her early parliamentary career Whetu took a feminist approach to some women’s issues. She attended the United Nations International Women’s Year conference in Mexico in June 1975, where she was hailed for speaking out against the political manipulation that had removed basic feminist concerns from the agenda. In 1977 she railed against the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Bill (which restricted access to abortion), arguing that abortion was ‘fundamental to a woman’s ability to participate equally in society’.2 She later modified this view, concerned at the high rate of abortion among Māori and Pasifika women. Whetu was also one of the few women to speak on the marae at Rātana Pā during pōwhiri, and as Minister of Tourism the first woman to speak on Tūrangawaewae marae at Ngāruawāhia.
When Labour came to power in 1972 Whetu was appointed Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Social Welfare, making her the first Māori woman cabinet minister. The social welfare portfolio appeared to provide an opportunity to advance the Rātana agenda of seeking statutory equality and justice for Māori, but in reality her ability to influence the minister, Norman King, was limited.
As tourism minister, Whetu was keen to transform the heavily male-dominated tourism industry. She promoted domestic tourism, opened a New Zealand tourism bureau in Tokyo, and encouraged the use of New Zealand crafts and Māori design in the souvenir trade. She also served as Minister for the Environment for a year following a 1974 cabinet reshuffle.
Design and dressmaking was a lifelong passion for Whetu, whose signature style was unique in the history of New Zealand fashion. Dressed in beautifully designed garments featuring Māori motifs, she was a distinctive presence in Parliament. She was keenly aware of the political statement she made through her design choices. In 1972 Whetu and Denis personally supported the development of Māori fashion design by establishing a boutique in Wellington which sold Māori and Polynesian-inspired garments made by local designers.
Whetu, resplendent in a gown designed by Kura Ensor featuring a red, black and white kōwhaiwhai pattern, was at the forefront of the group that met the 1975 Māori land marchers at Parliament. The dress was bold, contemporary, unmistakably Māori, and signalled Whetu’s solidarity with the marchers. Legislation to establish the Waitangi Tribunal had just been passed, and though Whetu had been instrumental in its development, she was critical that it could only address grievances arising from Crown actions from 1975 on.
Labour was back in opposition for three terms from 1975, with Whetu the spokesperson on social welfare and family affairs until 1980. She lobbied for more Māori content in broadcasting and the establishment of a Māori television unit, and for the correct pronunciation of Māori place names. She also initiated a series of private members’ bills seeking official status for te reo Māori (later conferred by the Maori Language Act 1987). As chair of Labour’s Maori Policy Committee from 1979 to 1986, Whetu was frustrated by her party’s consistent lack of enthusiasm for recognising the rights of tangata whenua under the Treaty of Waitangi.
When the fourth Labour government came to power in 1984, Whetu was not offered a cabinet portfolio. She continued to work on causes she believed in, lobbying for the inclusion of a treaty clause in the State-Owned Enterprises Act, promoting local government planning, and seeking protection for Māori fishing grounds. She also served for many years on the Māori affairs and electoral law select committee, which eventually supported legislation allowing Māori to vote anywhere within their Māori electorate.
In keeping with Rātana philosophy, Whetu was pan-Māori in her approach and regarded an emphasis on tribal affiliation as divisive. She was therefore troubled by the Labour government’s restructuring of the Department of Maori Affairs in the 1980s, which foreshadowed a devolution to iwi authorities of matters previously dealt with by the government. Along with organisations such as the Maori Women’s Welfare League and the Rātana movement, she lobbied for the involvement in the political process of Māori who had lost their tribal connections.
By the mid-1980s Whetu was sometimes portrayed in the media as moderate in comparison with younger urban activists. She acknowledged that she had not been ‘a high-profile person’ and that much of her work had been done ‘behind the scenes’.3 In 1993 a National government recognised her decades of service by admitting her to the 20-person Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest honour.
Whetu had a difficult and sometimes acrimonious relationship with the leaders of her iwi, Ngāi Tahu. A new generation of Ngāi Tahu leaders regarded some of the laws sponsored by Whetu’s father as paternalistic, out-dated, and unjust Crown impositions. In 1969 the Ngaitahu Maori Trust Board petitioned for the repeal of the Ngaitahu Claims Settlement Act 1944, but Whetu was steadfast in her opposition. She felt the petition implicitly questioned her father’s credibility.
She also opposed the trust board’s attempts to create a legal personality for the iwi in the lead-up to Ngāi Tahu’s treaty settlement with the Crown in the 1990s, though Ngāi Tahu beneficiaries voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu Bill. Whetu argued that the process of drafting the bill had been undemocratic and that the tribal leadership lacked a mandate, and continued to press these points in parliamentary debates and select committee hearings. Eventually a number of amendments satisfied her enough that she did not vote against the bill on its second reading. Subsequently the iwi authority Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu came into being. Whetu continued to scrutinise its actions for the rest of her life.
In the 1996 general election, after almost 30 years of service over ten successive terms, Whetu narrowly lost her seat in Parliament when the New Zealand First Party secured all five Māori seats. She retired from politics, bringing an end to the Tirikatene legacy of 64 years of parliamentary service – at least until her nephew Rino Tirikatene was elected in 2011. After a lifetime in Parliament, she was able to devote more time to her family and her health, though she continued to work with former constituents whose families had known hers for generations. In 2004, in an echo of the 1975 land march, Whetu called the Hīkoi mo te Takutai (foreshore and seabed hīkoi) onto the forecourt of Parliament.
Whetu died in Wellington on 20 July 2011, aged 79, after suffering a stroke. In keeping with her wishes, she was cremated after a private family service. Hundreds attended a public memorial service to celebrate her life and achievements on 12 August at Wellington’s Cathedral of St Paul. She was survived by her husband, two children, and two beloved mokopuna.