7 Apr 2012

Former Speaker Sir Peter Tapsell dies

7:47 am on 7 April 2012

Sir Peter Tapsell, the first Maori Speaker of Parliament, has died. He was 82.

The MP for Eastern Maori for 15 years, he held Cabinet posts in the Lange Labour Government of the 1980s and was previously an orthopaedic surgeon.

A member of Te Arawa, he was a talented sportsman in his younger years and was vice-captain of the 1954 Maori All Blacks.

Peter Tapsell was born on 21 January 1930 in Rotorua, educated at the Otago Medical School and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

In 1961, he returned to Rotorua and worked in orthopaedics for 20 years. In 1968, he was awarded an MBE for his services to the community.

Sir Peter served as the town's deputy mayor before being elected as the Labour MP for Eastern Maori in 1981. Three years later, he became a Cabinet minister and held several portfolios, including Police, Defence and Internal Affairs.

Historic appointment

In 1993 with Labour again in opposition, Peter Tapsell was a surprise choice as Speaker of the House.

The appointment was historic - he was the first Maori to be made Speaker, the first from an opposition party and the last under the First-Past-the-Post electoral system.

In an interview with Radio New Zealand at the time, Sir Peter said he wanted to improve the standard of debate and behaviour in the House.

"I hope we will have more broad debate, more open debate, but generally debate - rather than simply a competent role of trying to point-score.

"And, of course, I think the public are quite right - the behaviour in Parliament in the last few years has deteriorated markedly, and I hope it will be improved."

Controversial views

Knighted in 1997, Sir Peter was known for his immaculate suits and courtly behaviour, but sometimes ran into trouble with his plainly expressed views, such as when he held women responsible, as well as men, when they were raped.

He was often critical of Maori, saying the young were not living up to their responsibilities and accusing their elders of failing to show them the right way to live.

"Until we can improve the standards of behaviour in our own generation ... better standards of honesty, better standards of behaviour generally, then we are wasting our time spending all that money on those little children.

"They aren't going to benefit from that at all; they're going to go away from it recalcitrant and they're going to go away from it disappointed and disheartened."

However, he also believed Maori should be a core subject in schools so that New Zealand could grow toward developing a national culture.

When he lost his seat in 1996 in the first election under the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, Sir Peter was honoured at a reception in Rotorua and described as the pride of Te Arawa. He retired to his farm near Ruatoria.

Sir Peter's nephew says the family is in shock and disbelief over their loss.

Terry Tapsell says his uncle achieved great things, but was a very humble man.

Sir Peter's wife Margaret died a few years ago, and he is survived by his four children.