Helen Clark, Māori Council denounce portrayal of Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in international press

Helen Clark and the Māori Council have spoken out against international media for describing Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta as a "tattooed Maori woman" and fixating on her appearance. 

Māori Council executive chairman Matthew Tukaki said it was a "disgrace" that Mahuta, the first woman and wāhine Māori to become New Zealand's Foreign Minister, had been subjected to "offensive" headlines overseas. 

"It's a disgrace that one of our most recognised Māori leaders, who just happens to be a woman and carries a moko, is subjected to headlines that do more to grab attention and readers than it does to actually celebrate what has happened here - a Māori woman bringing a new perspective to the world of international affairs," he told Newshub. 

Māori Council executive chairman Matthew Tukaki.
Māori Council executive chairman Matthew Tukaki. Photo credit: Facebook / Matthew Tukaki

"But the headlines have also triggered a wave of hate across social media, referencing the articles and the headlines to then pour hate on someone else. The headlines are both offensive and have now been weaponised by racists and keyboard warriors."

Mahuta, Labour's MP for the Māori seat of Hauraki-Waikato, became the first woman in 2016 to wear a moko kauae - a traditional Māori female chin tattoo - in Parliament. 

She told VICE in 2016 it marked the anniversary of her father's death and that the design incorporated the traditional carving patterns of her tribe, Ngāti Maniapoto. It was also meant to inspire her young daughter.  

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark is speaking out against the fixation on Mahuta's appearance. She agreed with criticism of a headline about Mahuta by The Times: 'Ardern appoints tattooed Maori woman as foreign minister'. 

Clark responded with the "100" emoji to a Twitter post describing the British newspaper's headline as "pretty damn poor".

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo credit: Getty

"The headline is in poor taste," Clark later told Newshub. "Undue attention is still paid to the appearance of women in politics. The focus should be on their ideas and accomplishments."

Mahuta's appointment has gone global but the focus is often on her moko kauae. An article in The Australian was headlined 'Ardern introduces new faces, tattoos and all', while both The Independent and the Daily Mail among others headlined on her facial tattoo. 

Mahuta's office declined to comment on the issue. 

Indigenous and human rights activist Tina Ngata took offence with CNN's headline 'New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern appoints country's first Indigenous female foreign minister'. 

On Twitter, she suggested an "alternative headline that doesn't centre Jacinda Ardern, and doesn't make a political leader like Nanaia Mahuta a nameless Indigenous character". 

Ngata's alternative headline was 'Meet Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand's first Indigenous Minister for Foreign Affairs' - although, Ngata later acknowledged that previous Foreign Minister Winston Peters is also of Māori heritage. 

Others have linked to the CNN article with praise for Mahuta's appointment. 

"Congrats to New Zealand's new Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta," Elaine Pearson, Australia Director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter with a link to the story. 

She posted a quote by Māori TV political journalist Rukuwai Tipene-Allen who also wears a moko kauae, whose remarks appeared in the CNN article. 

"The first face that people see at an international level is someone who speaks, looks and sounds like a Māori," Tipene-Allen said. "The face of New Zealand is Indigenous." 

Mahuta told RNZ's Morning Report she was "hugely honoured" to be appointed in a role "some ministers can only dream of" and very few get to fill. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show she asked around about Mahuta before making the appointment, and feedback was that she "formed exceptional relationships very, very quickly" and that's "exactly what we need" from a Foreign Minister.  

Mahuta was not the only MP within Labour's Māori caucus celebrating a big promotion. Ardern unveiled what she described as an "incredibly diverse" new Cabinet, with several Māori, Pacific and LGBTQ members given senior positions.  

Māori MP Kiri Allan, who joins Cabinet for the first time as Conservation Minister and Minister for Emergency Management, said on Twitter she was grateful to be recognised. 

"A whirlwind couple of weeks - I am so grateful for the privilege to serve alongside my colleagues."

Grant Robertson became the first openly gay Deputy Prime Minister. 

"Cheers to all for the congrats today," he said on Twitter. "A wonderful team to be a part of. Feeling humbled, proud and ready to go!"