Nanaia Mahuta has spent her life breaking down barriers for women and indigenous peoples.
Twenty-four years ago, at the age of 26, she was the youngest Maori woman to win a seat in New Zealand’s parliament. This month she surprised the political establishment again when she was named Secretary of State by Jacinda Ardern as part of the most diverse government in the nation’s history.
Of the 20 cabinet members, a quarter are Maori, eight women and the deputy prime minister are gay.
“The appointment as the first Maori woman in the outside portfolio is significant, but it also reflects who we are in New Zealand,” Ms. Mahuta told the Financial Times.
Ms. Mahuta proudly displays her Maori heritage and identity in the form of Moko Kauae – a chin tattoo that is a hallmark of her genealogy. She is the daughter of former Maori politician and leader Robert Te Kotahitanga Mahuta and is related to King Tuheitia Paki, a Maori leader.
During her career she has been a strong advocate of the Maori and relationship building with other indigenous groups. She oversaw a cooperation agreement with Australia on the matter in February.
I believe that if we are very clear and respectful of one another, we can have difficult conversations.
“My perspective is one that is rooted in our country’s culture, but also recognizes the importance of our place in the world for our relationship with our Pacific brothers and sisters,” said Ms. Mahuta.
Fighting climate change will be a government priority, she said, pointing to the importance Maori have as caretakers or guardians of the environment, a concept known as Kaitiakitanga.
“She is an accomplished speaker and commentator on Maori topics. . . Then there is the cultural know-how, the principle of Manaakitanga [duty of care and hospitality] in a unique Maori way, ”said Rahui Papa, a member of the same iwi as Ms. Mahuta, Waikato-Tainui, a large North Island tribal group.
Some commentators have questioned whether she has the experience managing the foreign affairs portfolio that the Wellington diplomatic corps believed went to Andrew Little or David Parker, former secretaries of intelligence and security and trade, respectively would.
She has held several ministerial posts, however, and most analysts said she was a hardworking and smart politician who tended to avoid the limelight while she was getting things done.
The challenges Ms. Mahuta faced were underscored this week when Beijing attacked the Five Eyes intelligence network for meddling in Hong Kong affairs.
Beijing warned members of the alliance – the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – that they should be careful not to blind their eyes if they make a statement critical of China.
New Zealand has avoided the collapse of diplomatic relations with Beijing through Washington, Canberra and Ottawa.
It has also evaded the trade sanctions Beijing has imposed on Australian exporters. This is a success analyst who attributes Wellington’s caution to direct criticism of China and its pursuit of foreign policy less closely aligned with that of the US.
Nanaia Mahuta has a reputation for getting things done while avoiding the limelight
However, this delicate balancing act is becoming more and more complex. Washington is trying to contain China, while Beijing is getting a better grip on Hong Kong and trying to expand its influence into the Pacific, a region identified by Ms. Mahuta as a priority for New Zealand.
It will be a tricky challenge for the 50-year-old politician who got the job after Mrs Ardern’s Labor Party won the election last month.
Ms. Mahuta said New Zealand must adhere to its democratic values and principles in conducting its foreign policy, even if it includes its largest trading partner, China.
“We need to realize that if we respect the opportunities we have with China, we should also express our beliefs about our values,” said Ms. Mahuta.
“That really is the embassy in Hong Kong. We want to make sure there is a transition that respects the way people are treated there. . . I believe that if we are very clear and respectful of one another, we can have difficult conversations. “
However, when asked about allegations that Beijing interfered in New Zealand’s internal affairs and engaged in debt diplomacy in the Pacific by saddling vulnerable nations with loans they could not repay, Ms. Mahuta declined to publicly criticize China.
Instead, it focused on the US elections, suggesting that a Biden administration could serve as a breaker to ease geopolitical tensions.
“President-elect Biden’s early comments signaled some clear intentions about climate change and more proactive involvement in our multilateral system. So there are early signs that things may be on a different path.
“But that’s up to the US and China. We will continue to stand up for the values we stand for, seek ways to bring real gain to our economies and people, but also contribute to promoting peace, prosperity and inclusion around the world. “
Analysts are not that optimistic. David Capie, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said China was creating increasing problems for Wellington, including some that directly challenged New Zealand’s interests.
“If you increase the growing pressure from partners to say or do more, then foreign policy seems like a challenging portfolio,” he said.