Friday, 27 May 2022

Māori Party’s Debbie Ngarewa-Packer on confronting white supremacists, vaccinating gang members, surfing and Beyonce

As summer rolls around you can expect to catch Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer along Taranaki’s Surf Highway 45 scoping out the best waves. Ahead of that much-needed break she reflects to Herald political journalist Michael Neilson on a turbid first year in Parliament, which saw her face down white supremacists and take on Covid-19 first-hand – even vaccinating gang members – all while coming out inspired for more.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

• List MP, Te Pāti Māori
• Aged 55, born and lives in Pātea
• Member of Business, Health, Officers of Parliament, Pae Ora Legislation, and Standing Orders select committees
• Interesting fact: Avid surfer but: “I ride a longboard now”

Q: How have you found your first year in Parliament?

A:The biggest highlight has been getting back in. From the moment we arrived, we’ve given credit to a Māori worldview.

A major win was winning the seabed mining case in the Supreme Court.

The lowest was confronting some of the worst, emboldened racism and white supremacism I’ve ever seen in all my years as a Māori woman, hiding in the anti-vaccine movement, hiding in the He Puapua report criticism.

We’ve got a long way to go and some of these leaders need to step up as tangata tiriti and take their people to task, because this isn’t something Māori should be calling out.

I’ve got a members’ bill the Prohibition on Seabed Mining Legislation Amendment Bill in the ballot.

Q: You and Rawiri Waititi have been quite critical of the colonial structure of parliament, calling out the tie and racism, do you think that culture has changed at all during your past year?

A: There are some good things, some good people, but it takes a bit more than a mihi and karakia. You have to reset the balance, it is meant to be 50/50 partnership as in Te Tiriti, and it is even just aesthetics.

Why the hell have we got people who deliberately charged in, gave instructions and legalised the murdering, the raping and the displacing of indigenous peoples on these walls? I always say that, at no stage, they’d be celebrated.

Q: How has your mahi been up in Taranaki/Whanganui vaccinating?

A: I was reluctant to get vaccinated, then my nieces reminded me of my role and my sphere of influence. Too many Māori don’t engage with the health system, so I did it to understand how to engage, and then trained as a vaccinator to help with access.

I found hesitant people had been saturated with the loud anti and loud pro, and just turned off. With gang whānau, we still see whānau.

They asked simple questions, like if I had done it myself, if it hurt, or how it might affect their different lifestyle choices – questions they might not ask in normal settings because it might trigger judgement.

It was the most beautiful experience, humbling, and we found afterwards whānau would stay, and we could talk about all sorts of things.

They do want to engage in their wellbeing, receive medical support and health support.

They just ask why trust the system, when they’ve been judged all their lives.

Q: Where did you grow up and what was it like?

A: I grew up in Pātea in a three-generational home, very communal. It was a really great village life, riding around on bikes, playing in the bush, and spending most of our time at the beach, getting seafood, swimming, learning to ride different boards.

Q: What is your earliest memory?

A: My koro. He was born in 1901, the only surviving child of his father who was taken south during the land confiscations. His father came back and went to Parihaka, and was caught up in all that as well. My koro had 10 siblings but they all died in the influenza pandemic.

I was his first grandchild and we spent so much time together.

Q: Did you have any connection to Pātea’s pride and joy – Poi E?

A: Oh hell yeah. They were all whānau. I refer a lot to Pātea Māori Club not only because of Poi E, but they did that when the freezing works closed, and a lot of people had been made redundant. I’m very proud of them.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about your whānau?

A: My dad came from a huge whānau. They’d never left Pātea. He worked in the freezing works but retrained as a teacher after he became redundant.

Mum came from a family of five daughters. After raising us kids she became a teacher and eventually a principal, setting up the very first bilingual unit here in Pātea. This Irish woman could speak better reo than dad. They were a marriage of the best of both worlds.

I had a period as a single mum, brought up my eldest daughter alone, while I was studying holding down two – at one time three jobs – just really adamant I was not going to live off the state.

I met my husband Neil when I was 23, and then with him had two children (now adults). I also have six mokopuna, and two twins due in December.

Q: You’ve worked in the corporate space, been deputy mayor, iwi leader, Stanford University scholar (business) – what is something you are proud of pre-politics?

A: I’m proud of my family. In two generations they turned around quite a negative situation, with the raupatu (land confiscations) and mass redundancy period. They made huge sacrifices for us, committed us to values, aroha, pono and tika, and being as authentic as you can. I see that continuing in the next generation.

Q: How and why did you get into politics?

A: We were living and breathing politics without knowing what it was called. I got into it to address some of the injustices I could see, including the fight against seabed mining.

I didn’t really follow a party. I just followed what we were fighting. But when the foreshore and seabed issue came up, I just had a natural fit with Te Pāti Māori.

Q: Is there someone you admire in another political party and why?

A: I do not support what she’s doing, but I do respect Jacinda [Ardern]. She has brought humanity back into politics, but mostly I love that she’s part and parcel of dismantling the misogynistic behaviour this place can have.

Q: What do you do to unwind from politics, I’ve heard you’re a bit of a surfer?

A: We have a van set up and just go and get lost up the coast. We meet up with friends, freedom camp, surf, chill out, light a fire, wash my hair in river, fish for kai at night, check out the mussel beds, reconnect with old friends.

Q: What are the biggest issues for 2022?

A: Having a government that does not lose sight of its most vulnerable, of tangata whenua. Māori make up the most homeless, the most in poverty, most unhealthy, and as a consequence are not learning, not earning, and that is what Covid has heightened.

Q: If you could take anyone to dinner – dead or alive – who would it be and why?

A: Beyonce. I love the way she’s such a feminist, entrepreneur, family woman, her strength, her music – I try to copy her moves.

And now some quickfire questions …

Q: Beach or mountain getaway?
A: Beach

Q: Favourite beach?
A: Pātea Beach

Q: Favourite surf break?
A: Weld Road

Q: Best road trip song/artist?
A: Tupac, Changes or California

Q: Red or white wine?
A: Red

Q: Tea or coffee?
A: Coffee

Q: Dogs or cats?
A: Dogs

Q: Favourite social media?
A: TikTok

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