Dame Tariana Turia

Dame Tariana Turia came to prominence as a leader during the 79-day Pakaitore/Moutua Gardens protest in 1995 – in the 19 years that followed, hers became a household name across New Zealand as she worked to improve the lives of Māori.

By the time mainstream New Zealand met Dame Tariana, she was already well-known across the central region as an accomplished Māori leader. She had set up and run Te Oranganui Iwi Health Authority, New Zealand’s first and largest iwi-led PHO. 

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Dame Tariana served 18 years in Parliament, as a Labour MP, Independent MP, Māori Party co-leader and MP, and as part of a coalition government with National. She famously left Labour in protest at the party’s plans to place ownership of the foreshore and seabed with the State.

“It’s not about making the popular choice,” she has said. “It’s about making the right choice.”

Dame Tariana’s decision to cross the floor sparked a movement which eventually led to her co-founding the Māori Party. She was one of the party’s two co-leaders from its inception in 2004 until her retirement in 2014.

Throughout her career, Dame Tariana has advocated for not only Māori but also Pasifika and people with disabilities. She has led the development of a number of key initiatives, such as a $65m investment in rheumatic fever prevention, an exhaustive smoking reform campaign which spanned everything from packaging to taxation, and her flagship kaupapa, Whānau Ora. The wellbeing approach places responsibility for finding solutions and making decisions with whanau. Much like the Māori Party itself, Whanau Ora was about self-determination.

“To know ourselves, our strengths, our challenges and chart our own course,” Dame Tariana says.

Today, 250 Whanau Ora navigators operate around the country, helping Māori and Pasifika families develop plans to better their lives. More than 200 family businesses have been established with Whanau Ora investment.

Dame Tariana is Ngati Apa/Nga Wairiki, Tuwharetoa, Nga Rauru and Whanganui. She has been married to George for 56 years and they have six children, 27 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. Friends and whanau say Dame Tariana is driven by wanting the best future for her mokopuna, and every other whanau in New Zealand. She wants them to have cultural connection, a strong sense of identity and good health.

Dame Tariana grew up in the small village of Pūtiki, on the Whanganui River. She was raised by a grandmother, whangai parents and aunties – they all had high expectations that she would do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. Over the years, she collected a number of mentors and she would often return to these trusted advisors - to the River - for guidance, clarity and encouragement. Among them was Professor Whatarangi Winiata; a treasured adviser who would often remind her of the need to operate in a way which supported the tikanga and teachings she’d grown up with.

“Our elders have always held me to account, and I have loved that.”

In a world-first in March, as part of a Te Tiriti o Waitangi settlement, the Whanganui River gained its own legal identity, giving it the same rights as a person.

Dame Tariana has been appointed, alongside educator Turama Hawira, to act as the voice of the river. She says it is: “the most important role of my life”.

Dame Tariana has won a number of national and international accolades, among them the New Zealand Public Health Association’s inaugural Te Rangatira mo te Ora award recognising leadership in Māori health. In the New Year’s Honours at the start of 2015, she was made a Dame Companion of the Order of New Zealand for services as a Member of Parliament.

Dame Tariana says she has never thought of herself as a leader; on The River, considering yourself a leader would be whakahihi. Maori history reveals that there were many leaders in each community and Dame Tariana believes the ability to lead resides in everybody – it just needs to be identified and encouraged.

In the valedictory speech at the end of her Parliamentary career in 2014, she said: “I have been humbled by the trust that’s been placed in me.”

Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu chief executive Helen Leahy has worked alongside Dame Tariana since 1999 and wrote her biography. She says Dame Tariana is a servant-leader who seeks contribution and guidance from all members of her team.

“Every day, she served in the best interests of her people. She believes in conducting conversations in such a way that they enhance the mana of others. She is inspirational in word and action, and the perfect choice to be the first Māori woman to be given the Blake Medal. “What she has done has been transformational for this generation and generations to come. She has been a huge advocate for placing hope and faith in the ability of all our families to care for themselves and that’s a great leadership legacy.”