WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – Diplomats wanted to remain neutral, but Nanaia Mahuta left the veil peeling slightly when the winner was announced in the US election by tweeting a smiling face emoji.
Mahuta, the first indigenous Maori woman to be appointed New Zealand’s foreign minister, held back a real-life smile when asked about it.
“Look, all I can say is there were some encouraging signs in the speeches,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. She said the victory speech by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “inspired many women around the world.”
Mahuta, 50, is a surprising choice for the role, despite being a respected player in Parliament for nearly half his life, since he was first elected in 1996 at the age of 26.He is part of the most diverse group of MPs ever appointed to top role in the cabinet after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won a second term in a landslide victory last month.
Mahuta said he was pleased to be selected and promised to bring a new perspective in foreign affairs.
He didn’t have to wait long for his first bickering moment. New Zealand has long been wary of criticizing China, its biggest trading partner.
But Mahuta last week took steps to join Australia, Canada, Britain and the US in condemning China for imposing new rules to disqualify legislators in Hong Kong.
China reacted angrily.
“Be careful not to be glanced at,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in response, referring to the “Five Eyes” military alliance between the five countries.
Mahuta said he had spoken with Ardern before deciding to sign the statement and felt it was a natural progression to “dial up the dial up” and join another country. He said he thought relations with China were mature enough to withstand such disagreements.
However, it will be a challenge for Mahuta to find the right balance to strike with an increasingly assertive China and an aggressive US. For now, Mahuta said he intends to focus on building relationships with New Zealand’s closest island neighbor in the Pacific, even if the Coronavirus prevents him from traveling there in person.
“This could be Zoom’s diplomacy period,” he said.
People all over the world are curious about Mahuta’s moko kauae, or sacred face tattoo, which he got four years ago to celebrate his legacy, ancestry, and connection with Papatuanuku, or Mother Earth.
The most common question is, does it hurt? she laughed.
The answer? Not really, because his mind went to a different place.
She said that wearing a moko made her more aware “of how you want to be, how you treat other people. So it’s almost like a compass. “
Thirty years ago, before there was a revival of Maori culture in New Zealand, facial tattoos tended to be associated with gang members. Mahuta said he still found negative reactions against him in parts of the country, but today most people recognize him as an affirmation of culture.
Mahuta is the daughter of the late Sir Robert Mahuta, a key figure in the Tainui tribe who helped settle innovative financial claims with the government over land taken during colonialism.
Mahuta said that his father was his mentor and a tough assignor. But it was the students he met as university tutors who convinced him to get into politics, not his father.
“I thought if he succeeded, I would not get into politics, I would become a member of the tribe,” he said.
Lara Greaves, a politics lecturer at the University of Auckland, said Mahuta was very well prepared for the role because he had spent his entire life studying high-level cultural diplomacy in Maori society.
“I think this is a very positive step,” said Greaves.
He said the surprise at Mahuta’s appointment – including himself – likely reflected the dominance men still have internationally in foreign affairs.
Mahuta said he wanted to see more women involved.
“I am part of a small group of women who have now reached out and joined hands to say, there is much we can do together,” she said.
In his office, Mahuta displays various artifacts that have meaning to him – a basket of knowledge from the Pacific, a photo of the prime minister inviting his ancestors to parliament. And then he came to the village of the Silvanian Family around the corner.
“I have a 7 year old daughter who makes part of this office her own,” said Mahuta. “One of the things I learned when I was in Parliament is to make it family friendly.”