Sir John Turei
Maori lost one of their wisest leaders when Sir John Turei died a couple of weeks ago. In an era when they seem plagued by false prophets, John was a true guide. Born near Ruatoki in the heart of Tuhoe territory in November 1919, he often told me it was a joy to come at an early age under the influence of Sir Apirana Ngata. While John took the name Turei from the man his mother (Te Ahikaiata) was meant to marry, his "biological father" (as John always called Tami Te Whetu), increasingly acknowledged his son and took him along to political gatherings. Long before Turei performed the wero in front of Lord Bledisloe at the opening of the Treaty House at Waitangi in 1934, he had met Ngata, then Native Minister. Having left school early because his grandmother couldn't afford Te Aute's uniform, John often accompanied Ngata and Te Whetu on ministerial trips. Carrying bags, polishing shoes and fetching hot water for Ngata's shaving, enabled John to listen to the old man talking with his closest confidants. John was always a good listener. His eyes would sometimes close in meetings, but he heard everything.
Ngata sensed by 1938 that his own political approach of encouraging hard work and development could be swamped by the Labour Government's welfare policies. He encouraged John to join Labour to keep an eye on them. John campaigned low key against his mentor in 1938, although he himself wasn't yet old enough to vote. Turei remained a Labour supporter for the rest of his long life, but he stuck to Ngata's belief that Maori would succeed only if they borrowed punctuality, the acquisition of skills, and hard work from the Pakeha world. He passed this message to his own family, many of whom have been very successful in life. John's enduring support for Maori education recently saw him awarded an honorary doctorate. Ngata would have been proud.
John milked cows as a youngster, farmed near Turangi, and played a good game of tennis. He signed up for the Maori Battalion in 1939 and went to Britain, Egypt and Italy. He learned journalism at the BBC; many will recall his radio contributions in later years. After 1945 Turei baked bread in Whangarei, drove taxis in Auckland then spent many years as a social worker, often, but not exclusively, helping Maori. With Sue, his second wife, whom he married after the untimely death of his first, John counselled many as they faced up to the rigours and temptations of urban life. He believed in discipline. His indomitable Christian faith that saw him always say grace and begin meetings with prayers, sustained him. His principled conduct won him huge respect.
Like Ngata, Turei was contemptuous of false prophets. As the two of us drove to Waitangi Tribunal meetings, John would rail against those who saw the Treaty as a one-way benefit with no obligations in return. To him, tino rangatiratanga never meant that Maori could do anything they liked and get away with it. Ngata's and Turei's worlds required accountability by both races to the highest common standard. John spent his life arguing that Maori be given their due, and compensated for past wrongs. But he was wary of special privileges. If governments went down that track, backlash from others would result. When he encountered people harming the wider Maori cause, John would dismiss them - always with a touch of humour - as "humbugs".
Turei appreciated the need for Maori thinking and customs to adapt over time. While he was one of the finest Maori speakers, and a fount of knowledge about traditions and customs, he knew that demographic changes required new approaches. He himself had been part of the post-war urbanisation process. His family grew up in Auckland, even while they maintained their Tuhoe connections. He was part of Prime Minister Peter Fraser's urban Maori advisory group, and he helped found Te Tira Hau Marae in Panmure. While some argued that original tribal connections must determine government recognition, John thought constant tribal intermarriage made this difficult. As the generations ticked by, urbanised Maori deserved recognition in their own right, no matter how diverse their tribal backgrounds. Turei supported Waipareira, the multi-tribal West Auckland organisation, in its quest for Crown recognition.
Rational, polite, impeccably dressed, John Turei was dedicated to the cause of bettering Maori's lot in life. John's last conversation with me a few days before he died was about the need for "our people" to become good managers of their settlement moneys. More needed training in money management. His was a voice for common sense that will be missed. One can but hope that his - and Ngata's - principles retain currency, no matter how many seek to undermine them.
Michael Bassett and John Turei were friends for 30 years, working together in the Labour Party and the Waitangi Tribunal.