In her law firm office at the end of a long corridor, Democratic Party leader and renowned lawyer Tina Browne is burrowed away and sits among neatly stacked piles of paper – on her desk, on shelves, on the floor and even on every available chair.
She apologises for being “disorganised”, and then laughs.
“At least I know where everything is,” she says.
The leader of the Opposition has taken time out of her full schedule to meet with Cook Islands News.
Browne may be petite in stature, but she exudes mana.
One of the greatest attributes a person can have, she says, is honesty. And Browne has set up this meeting to set the record straight about what has been happening with her political party.
She wants people, “her people”, to know the truth.
Tina Pupuke Browne wanted to be a dancer or a tennis player when she was young and she was quite talented at both too.
Her father, former Cook Islands Prime Minister the late Sir Pupuke Robati, had other ideas.
Education was everything to her father, who was a doctor and respected and loved by the people of the Cook Islands especially in his home island of Rakahanga.
On one occasion Browne wanted to travel with the Tereora College dance group to Tahiti.
She plucked up the courage to ask her father if she could go.
“Dancing won’t get you anywhere,” she was told.
So it was school, no dancing. “Anything outside education, I wasn’t allowed. I bawled my eyes out, my mother felt sorry for me and rang him back and said I was crying.
“His response was, people don’t die when they cry.”
As much as it didn’t please her at the time, she buckled down and that year Browne received a scholarship and went on to study law at Canterbury University in Christchurch. She was admitted to the bar in Auckland in 1981.
While she could have stayed in New Zealand and built a successful career, she decided to return home. Browne is widely regarded as one of the country’s leading practitioners in the area of land law.
His stance on education has passed through to Browne who has invested the same amount of time and money into her own children’s education.
Part of the reason she chose to hold off her political career when her dad had asked her to become involved in the late 1980s was because her children’s education was important to her.
And it’s paid off: all three of her sons are pilots and her daughter has recently joined Browne Harvey and Associates PC as a law clerk.
Family is important. And a solitary tear runs down her face as she speaks, in the present tense, about the wonderful man her father was and the attributes he possessed.
“He is a very patient man,” she says. He’s honest, extremely thorough and someone who doesn’t flare up easily.
There are a lot of traits that Browne says she inherited from him – but patience wasn’t one of them!
She’s also had to learn to think about how she deals with conflict. And that is something that has come in handy lately, she says.
Browne knows nothing about social media and she has no qualms about admitting it.
On the day of Mona Ioane Jr’s funeral, she and hundreds of other mourners went to the morning church service. She hadn’t been able to attend the family service the night before so felt “duty bound”, she says.
With the workload she had on that day, the plan was to attend church and go back to work.
But once there, Browne looked around.
“I thought to myself, you have to find another two hours to do the work you think you’re going to be doing today. You need to go to the funeral, is what I was telling myself,” she says.
Her phone battery was about to die, but she didn’t need it.
After the service, and after talking with some good friends, Browne did something she never normally does. She went and had some lunch.
On her return to the office at about 1.30pm, her office staff asked where her phone was.
The looks on their faces said it all.
When one of her office staff members showed her a screenshot of a Facebook post on the Demos page, her heart dropped.
“I was shocked and I was terrified,” she says.
“I had no idea the page had administrators, I know now, I’ve had to educate myself very quickly along the way,” she says.
Once she composed herself and realised the magnitude of what they were dealing with, Browne’s first call was to her chief executive William Framhein.
“I said to William, what was on that page? He said, oh, it’s been removed,” she says.
“I needed to apologise without asking who or what. I told him I want an apology put up right now!”
Her thinking was to immediately issue an apology on the Demos page, and then get in touch with Mona Ioane Sr.
She gestures with her hands, pinching her index finger and thumb together to illustrate how she felt that day.
“I felt about this small,” she says.
Usually, her approval is sought for every post on the Democratic Party page, she says. This time, it wasn’t.
“I was brought up in an environment where you just don’t do things like that when the funeral is on. Whether it’s right or wrong, as far as the family is concerned that was in extremely bad taste,” she says.
By the time the apology was posted, the damage had already been done. The issue had exploded.
Browne was furious – she wanted answers. Most of all, she wanted to know who the author of the post was.
On the outside, rumours were swirling about major discontent in the Demos camp with some members of the caucus calling for Browne’s resignation.
People made their opinions known about her being a “weak leader”.
The press had a field day, she says.
Behind closed doors Browne was struggling with what she knew in her gut to be true, even though there continued to be categorical denial.
She called a meeting with her staff and worked out there were only a few people who could have posted. Other page administrators were unhappy that fingers were getting pointed at them.
Even though she wanted to believe that everyone she had spoken to wouldn’t lie about such serious allegations, someone wasn’t telling the truth.
After being unable to blatantly deny being the author of the post any longer, William Framhein finally ’fessed up.
Framhein was given time to think about his options but the bottom line was, if he didn’t resign when he did, he would have been sacked.
That was a decision made with caucus consultation, but ultimately it was Browne’s.
“We had robust and constructive discussions about it and the majority couldn’t get past the dishonesty and the lying, not on one occasion but many,” she says.
Browne was also struggling with the rumours of her leadership being questioned.
So she asked her caucus for assurances of their support – and she says the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I’m talking about the majority, there was no threat at all about, if William doesn’t resign your position is at risk too,” she says. “I thought, well that’s good.”
As a politician Brown is under no illusions that there are people out there that don’t like her, who want to see her fall, who don’t like the fact that the leader of the Demos wears a skirt.
The reason why she has piles of paper in her law firm office is because she is wrapping up 40 years of legal practice to focus more on her political position.
She wants it to be a smooth transition, but still has many people who don’t want to deal with anyone else. They trust Browne, as their lawyer, which is something she has never taken for granted.
“I have a really hard time turning people away but I have faith in my team,” she says.
Dealing with this latest incident has made her stronger, focused and ready to give her party and her people everything she’s got.
Fate has taken its course and not only has she got her daughter Norah on her legal team now, but her daughter-in-law as well.
In fact, her office is full of women, something she says happened completely by coincidence.
“I don’t look at whether someone is wearing a skirt or not. I’ve always judged a person by their merits and their character,” she says.
And what would her father think of his girl?
“I believe he would be immensely proud and he’ll be saying finally you’ve made it into politics,” she says.
“The next step is getting back into Government.”