Nanaia Mahuta has spent her life breaking down barriers for women and indigenous peoples.
Twenty-four years ago, at the age of 26, she became the youngest Maori woman to win a seat in New Zealand’s parliament. This month she surprised the political establishment again when she was appointed minister for foreign affairs 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 are women and the deputy prime minister is gay.
“Being appointed as the first Maori woman to the foreign affairs portfolio is significant but it is also reflective of 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 marker 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 for Maori and for building ties with other indigenous groups — overseeing a collaboration agreement with Australia on the issue in February.
“My perspective is one that is rooted in the culture of our country but that also recognises the importance of our place in the world in terms of our relationship with our Pacific brothers and sisters,” said Ms Mahuta.
Tackling climate change will be a priority of the government, she said, noting the importance placed by Maori in being caretakers or guardians of the environment, a concept known as kaitiakitanga.
“She is an accomplished orator and commentator on Maori issues . . . added to this is the cultural knowhow, 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 big North Island tribal group.
A few commentators have questioned whether she has the experience to manage the foreign affairs portfolio, which the Wellington diplomatic corps thought would go to Andrew Little or David Parker, former ministers of intelligence and security and trade respectively.
However, she has held several ministerial posts and most analysts said she was a hard-working and astute politician, who tended to avoid the limelight while getting things done.
The challenges facing Ms Mahuta were underlined this week when Beijing lashed out at the Five Eyes intelligence network for interfering in Hong Kong affairs.
Beijing warned the alliance members — the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia — that they should be wary of their “eyes being poked blind” for issuing a statement critical of China.
New Zealand has avoided the breakdown in diplomatic relations with Beijing experienced by Washington, Canberra and Ottawa.
It has also evaded the trade sanctions imposed on Australian exporters by Beijing, a success analysts attribute to Wellington’s caution against directly criticising China and its pursuit of a foreign policy less closely aligned to that of the US.
However, this delicate balancing act is growing more complex. Washington is trying to contain China while Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong and seeking to extend its influence in 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 was given the job after Ms Ardern’s Labour party won last month’s election.
Ms Mahuta said New Zealand had to stand by its democratic values and principles in its conduct of foreign policy, even when it involved its biggest trade partner, China.
“We need to be clear that as we respect opportunities that we have with China, we should also message out our beliefs around our values,” said Ms Mahuta.
“That is really the message around Hong Kong. We want to ensure that there is a transition that respects the way in which people are treated there . . . I believe if we are very clear and respectful of each other’s views we can have difficult conversations.”
But when Ms Mahuta was asked about allegations that Beijing was interfering in New Zealand’s domestic affairs and engaging in debt diplomacy in the Pacific by saddling vulnerable nations with loans they could not pay back, she declined to publicly criticise China.
Instead, she focused on the US election, suggesting that a Biden administration could serve as a circuit breaker that eased geopolitical tensions.
“The early comments of President-elect Biden have signalled some clear intentions around climate change and engaging more proactively in our multilateral system. So there are early indications that things may well be on a different path.
“But that is a matter for the US and China. We will continue to advocate for the values that we stand for, seek out opportunity where we can deliver real gains to our economy and people, but also contribute to the promotion of peace, prosperity, and inclusion across the globe.”
Analysts are not so optimistic. David Capie, director of the centre for strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said that China would increasingly cause problems for Wellington, including some that challenged New Zealand’s interests directly.
“If you add in growing pressures from partners to say or do more, then foreign affairs looks like being a challenging portfolio,” he said.