Kōkiri 26 – A Man of Many Parts

Published in Kōkiri 26, Ngahuru - Autumn 2012

If you caught a glimpse of Sir Peter Tapsell’s tangi on television, you might have been surprised to see his coffin, a simple pine box with rope handles. For a moment you might have thought that his whānau was too mean or pohara to get him a flash coffin, something more fitting for the man who had such a full life and played so many roles in our society; but then again if you knew him you would know that that was not the case and that almost certainly it was his choice – and it was.

Just like it was his choice to bypass Rotorua and the opportunity to lie at Ohinemutu in front of the great Te Arawa whare Tama Te Kapua – and to go instead straight from Ruatorea where he died peacefully in his sleep on Thursday 5 April, to Maketū for his tangi and subsequent burial.

His son David says there were murmurs as they arrived at the marae at Maketū and members of the paepae asked about the pine coffin – “was it timber milled from a tree on his farm near Ruatorea? Aah no,” they told the enquirers, “from Mitre 10”.

Sir Peter’s son Rees who like his dad, is a doctor too, put it together.

Few people will have crammed so much into their lives as Sir Peter did.

Peter Wilfred Tapsell was born in 1930. His father Pita was a grandson of the colourful Danish-born sailor/trader who took the name Phillip Tapsell and settled at Maketū, in 1830. He married a young Te Arawa princess named Hine-i-tūrama Ngātiki; their son Riterite was Sir Peter’s grandfather.

Sir Peter’s mum May was a Pākehā lady from the South Island, she and Pita had seven children one of whom died as a child.

The family grew up in a two-roomed house on a tiny farm at Maketū, it was the great depression and times were tough.

But young Peter Wilfred overcame all of that, and his life went from one success to another. He went to Rotorua Boys' High School where he got a good education and a great grounding in rugby.

His next stop was Otago University and medical school. He was a pretty handy rugby player and played for the university club and Otago; and then in 1954, the Māori All Blacks. They toured Fiji that year and Peter Tapsell was the team’s vice-captain.

He was injured during the tour and although rugby officials suggested to him that they would see him right and that he might be able to have a crack at the All Black side after he recovered, like other chapters in his life when he made up his mind to move on, he turned his back on rugby and concentrated instead on his medical career.

Sir Peter wasn’t the first Māori doctor, but he may well have been the first Māori surgeon. He met his wife and life partner Diane through his work, she was a nurse, and they raised their family of two girls and two boys in Tapsell Road Rotorua.

At his tangi mention was made many times of his time as an orthopaedic surgeon and there’s no doubt that he excelled in that chapter in his life. In Rotorua he began his march to Parliament, he cut his teeth in local politics serving as a city councillor including time as deputy-mayor.

Then in 1981 he moved to the next phase in his life, the Member of Parliament for Eastern Māori a seat he held for the next 15 years. He was a Labour MP, which surprised many people given some of his views he shared in public. His son David describes his father’s politics as “centre-right, but he had a socialist core”.

While Labour was in power Peter Tapsell held a number of portfolios, at different times being Minister of Internal Affairs, Police, Defence, Civil Defence, Arts, Science and Forestry.

Probably his most controversial political appointment came in 1993 when he was nominated Speaker of Parliament by a National Government with a wafer-thin one-seat majority. He accepted the appointment and as usual, did an exemplary job.

He was the first Māori to be Speaker of the House; but it was also to be his last term in Parliament. In the 1996 election, the first under MMP, he lost his seat when New Zealand First candidates swept Labour out of the Māori seats.

While that loss closed the political chapter of his life, he had already opened another. Sometime before he had bought an ‘old fashioned sheep station’ near Ruatorea, on the East Coast. And while he was Te Arawa to the bone, he largely spent the remaining years of his life on the farm, and it is there that he passed away. Lady Diane predeceased him by three years, and their four children and nine mokopuna – all boys, survive them.

Time and again tributes referred to him being a thorough gentleman, respected by people of all political parties, his sartorial elegance, and his service at local and national level.

He was 82 years old and was buried at Maketū.

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