Profile: Harete Hipango and how she upset National colleagues

Harete Hipango’s brief career as an MP has seen her upset staff with her manner, lecturing senior colleagues on the work they are doing – and even how they are speaking. After she visited a public protest by a Covid-questioning misinformation group, David Fisher profiles an MP who could be facing her last term in Parliament.

As a Māori woman in the National Party, Harete Hipango was told by a colleague to pull her head in if she wanted to achieve her ambitions at Parliament.

But that’s never been Hipango’s style. And so, after a handful of years of trying to correct what colleagues said and how they thought, her march across a Whanganui street to a Voices for Freedom protest could be the pathway that takes her straight back out of Parliament.

She arrived at Parliament with a golden whakapapa and decades of experience as a lawyer who had worked with troubled youth and those suffering mental illness. Before that, she was a high-performing sportswoman and student.

That was 2017. In the three years that followed, she was marked by colleagues – and even one leader – as a potential problem rather than a future star. The issue seemed moot when she lost the Whanganui electorate then was reborn when she returned on the list in June 2021, filling a vacancy.

The National Party’s question of “what to do with Harete” is now pressing. On a sunny Saturday morning early in January, the National Party list MP walked through central Whanganui to buy croissants for breakfast when she spotted a Voices for Freedom protest.

For most politicians, the Covid-questioning, public health-doubting protest group would be a red flag of warning.

Not for Hipango, though, who seems to have always considered her own counsel best. Having previously spoken in support of vaccination – and having both jabs herself – she crossed the road and approached the group with a cheery hello, then stopped to chat.

Posing in front of the group for selfies, she said, “I’m probably going to get roasted for this,” then posted the photo to Facebook with a jumble of words speaking to freedom of choice and sorrow over division in society.

“The mantle of leadership is passed to me from my ancestors,” she wrote, invoking the Hipango dynasty which runs deep through Whanganui’s history.

Hipango, 57, was born in Whanganui and raised in the suburb Putiki on a hill beside Whanganui River. She was fourth of five children born to Hoani Hipango and Eileen Shaw, the union of a Māori father with Scottish ancestry and a third-generation Irish New Zealander. She has three adult children with husband Dean MacFater.

Hers was a military family with service at its core. Both parents were in the air force when they met. Her brother Lieutenant Colonel Waata Hipango was killed in Singapore while serving in the NZ Army. An uncle, Porokoru Patapu Pohe, was famous for his role in World War II’s “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III and subsequent murder by the Gestapo.

Further back, there were direct links to Whanganui’s great rangatira, her great-great-grandfather Hoani Wiremu Hipango and the decorated soldier Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, known as Major Kemp. Both fought alongside government forces, with Hoani Hipango dying of wounds during one battle. Both were buried with full military honours at Pukiti.

Rere-o-Maki, Rangihiwinui’s mother, was one of five women to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

Hipango identifies links to Whanganui, Ngāti Apa, Tūwharetoa and Taranaki iwi. In her CV for the 2017 election, she described her whānau as being of “rangatira” (chieftainship) rank.

In recounting this, Hipango told the electorate of service that spanned generations. “I simply share a snippet of my whānau history as a reminder of the Hipango commitment, service and acknowledgement to the people of Whanganui and surrounding regions.”

Hipango was raised with this great weight of history and knowledge she was born into this chiefly line. Alongside this, Hipango described an awakening from the non-political home in which she was raised in a Radio NZ interview for its Matangireia series on former Māori politicians, given between her exit from Parliament in 2020 and return to it in June 2021.

In it, she spoke of how formative it was growing up in the time of the 1975 hīkoi to Parliament and the Bastion Point occupation, and how horrified she was witnessing the “power of the state” on Waitangi Day at Pākaitore (Moutua Gardens) in 1981.

Her grandfather Hori Kingi Ingarangi Hipango sat with mainly Pākehā dignitaries inside as a peaceful protest by Māori outside was pushed back by police. She spoke of seeking out her koro, who intervened and calmed police and protesters.

At the time, Hipango was excelling at school and sport, and working as a cleaner in the legal offices where her mother worked as a legal executive. She pursued law as a career, initially attempting to do so through enlisting with the Royal NZ Navy as an officer. She was rejected because of her gender.

Whanganui, Pākaitore and the law would be central to Hipango’s life. Apart from a handful of years away, her life was centred on the small city and, within it, centred on the law courts at the edge of Pākaitore. There she worked as an advocate for youth, largely in the family court, and for a period as district mental health inspector.

The courts sit at the edge of Pākaitore, bringing Hipango’s worlds crashing together during the 1995 occupation. Hipango spoke of how her status as a lawyer won her no favours from the state, describing to RNZ an assault by police who restrained and searched her seemingly because she was Māori as she entered the courthouse. And yet, among those occupying Pākaitore, there were those who called her “kūpapa”, a slur for those who collaborate with the Crown.

Former Labour Cabinet Minister and Māori Party founder Dame Tariana Turia, who has known Hipango since she was a girl growing up down the road at Pukiti, witnessed much of what the MP experienced. “That would have struck at her heart.” It was, Turia believed, the first time Hipango had found there were sides to take.

Hipango talked years later of how she was seen by some as not Pākehā enough and by others as not Māori enough, yet there was never any doubt about who she served. She had supported the Māori Party, she told RNZ, and still did – and any other group working to advance and support Māori.

“That’s why I believe the National Party needs people like me there,” she said. Being Māori in the National Party, she said, “doesn’t come without difficulty and I knew that” when joining. She explained, though, that at the time she joined John Key had been a prime minister who worked in coalition with the Māori Party and Bill English had shown similar willingness.

In February 2017, Hipango visited Turia to tell her she had decided to run for Parliament. Incumbent MP Chester Borrows was retiring and had approached her to stand.

“I was pleased,” said Turia, although surprised Hipango had chosen the National Party. “All those parties serve the same constituency. The people who voted for them and put them in power are Pākehā people and so that is where their focus is.”

It was, Turia believed, a positive move. “I believe Harete is the ideal person to be in the National Party – if they had understanding and respect for who she is and the things she can bring them.”

For Hipango, arriving at Parliament meant working in a place where those values she was raised to consider important barely rated a mention.

Hipango’s whakapapa lifted her even as it weighed her down. To walk in a Māori world with the tupuna she had was to be elevated beyond her own achievements and ambitions. In the predominantly Pākehā world of Parliament, though, she was often seen as wearing boots too big for the feet that had carried her there.

Jo Hayes, a National list MP from 2014-2020 whose whakapapa includes Whanganui, said there was no doubt Hipango arrived in Parliament focused on how she could benefit Māori. “There was no one in the caucus that was mistaken about who she supported.”

She recalled telling Hipango: “You’re not dealing with people of like thinking when you’re in here and you have to go about it in a different way.”

That included Hipango’s whakapapa. It meant one thing in a Māori world, and in Whanganui. In Parliament: “People just didn’t give a toss. They just didn’t understand.”

“I said, ‘They just don’t care … you just prove your worth’. I said to Harete, ‘The only way you can push the Māori agenda is to stop thinking everyone should bow down to you and just get on with it’.”

As a first-term MP, Hipango bucked the rule that learner MPs should keep their mouths shut and ears open. She weighed in where she felt she had expertise or views to lend, not only in caucus but across a number of select committees. It often meant stepping in front of – or on – colleagues who had been in Parliament for years.

In one Parliamentary speech related to the family court, Hipango told the House: “I do happen to know more about this than any other member in this House.” It was a claim that didn’t surprise colleagues, despite what it inferred about her own party’s spokespeople on courts and Oranga Tamariki.

Among Hipango’s advice to colleagues were efforts to improve their mangled pronunciation. “She would say to people, ‘This is how you pronounce this in te reo’,” said Hayes.

Collectively, it was an approach that might have been seen as “over the top” for a new MP. Hayes: “We all went about our business differently.”

It proved isolating. Hayes said caucus was a place where “it’s very much a pecking order”. “The first-timers usually keep their mouth shut.”

Hipango’s approach was to stride forward with a surety of purpose. Doing so while isolated in caucus saw her make a poorly judged social media post attributing a false quote to the Prime Minister.

Later there were claims of inappropriate spending which saw a taxpayer-funded television and furniture delivered to her home. There was even her claim “Keep Left” traffic signage was politically driven, and the social media own-goal in which she congratulated herself for her own speech.

In the process, Hipango wound up offside with colleagues and upset staff with her manner, leading to repeated audiences with the party’s whips. Colleagues were amazed that in the face of what they would take as necessary guidance or serious warning, Hipango remained serene, and apparently oblivious.

When Judith Collins took leadership in the months before the 2020 election, Hipango’s fortunes improved. As part of the support network Collins cultivated at the party fringes, Hipango found herself on the inside for once.

It was this which saw Hipango elevated up the party list, said Hayes. “Judith had people she got along with and she rewarded. She’ll deny it, of course. But you can see it. A blind man could see it.”

The elevation up list rankings wasn’t enough in Labour’s landslide victory. Blue Whanganui went red, sending Hipango back to practice law. In the seven months she was out of Parliament, her list placing had her perched, ready to return, if any sitting MPs left.

It came in June when veteran National MP Nick Smith quit after being warned by Collins of an imminent damaging news story. His exit saw Hipango step forward as the next MP on National’s list.

The return was an opportunity for Hipango to realise her ambition for Maori through politics – and then Collins stepped down as leader. With the loss of that close and personal connection, Hipango was again isolated.

For Turia, Hipango’s latest brush with political trouble compounded earlier, incorrect,impressions.”I think there’s been a complete misunderstanding of her and the way she’s been portrayed. I’m annoyed by it because I know her so well and love her dearly.”

She added: “I thought she would bring an understanding to the National Party of what her experiences in life had been. If they knew her whakapapa, they would know who she is and what she can bring them.”

Instead, Turia found herself “gobsmacked” at the “lack of understanding”. Part of that was a lack of recognition of Hipango’s whakapapa and the weight of responsibility that brought. Part of it was overlooking Hipango’s insight into issues impacting primarily on Māori, and particularly on youth.

Turia described Hipango as coming from a relatively “privileged” background with life experiences that led to an understanding of those who had not enjoyed her advantages in life. Along with that, said Turia, was “desire to serve”.

Hipango’s visit to the Voices for Freedom protest was in keeping with her whakapapa and its obligation to care for all, fostering connection rather than division, said Turia. “I was proud of her doing that.”

“She’s never been afraid to speak her mind. She’s always been a very direct person. She’s a very honest and good person.”

Turia said Hipango had “fitted” her whole life, succeeding in career, education, family and sport. When it came to Parliament, “I don’t think she thought it would be easy but didn’t think it would be as hard as it is”.

“She wanted to make a difference and thought Parliament was the place it would happen. She would never have thought she would be ostracised in that environment.”

Hipango said in the Radio NZ interview: “The Māori voice in the National Party has yet to be truly valued, I believe. And it’s about the people positioned into seniority in the party . . . I believe it is valued by some but not enough.”

Asked if Parliament was lonely, she replied: “Yes, it is lonely but one has to immerse into the setting to learn how to survive.”

When asked who her allies were in Parliament and where she sought support, she replied: “I would go home.”

And between visits home there was her office where on the bookcase were taonga from home and photographs of tupuna. “There were days,” she said, “I would go into my office and I would just stroke the kahu and the mere and just hold the photos of my whānau.”

Hipango was well aware of her position in the party. “My views have never aligned with many of my caucus colleagues. I’m not in there to be a yes or no to their views.”

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