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Pacific ambassador mourned

Wednesday 18 November 2009 | Published in Regional

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This week several Pacific nations, including the Cook Islands, mourn the loss of Tia Barrett, also known as John Richard Te Rongotoa Barrett, who passed away in Auckland last Sunday at the age of 62.

A week after being flown to Auckland on a medical evacuation flight, the NZ High Commissioner to the Cook Islands passed away at Middlemore Hospital surrounded by his family. It is understood Tia suffered a heart attack at the Rarotonga golf club before being rushed to NZ for medical treatment.

Tia was a member of the well-known Ngati Maniapoto tribe, and is a descendent of Nathaniel Barrett, who arrived in New Zealand from England in the 1840s.

New Zealand’s most senior Maori diplomat is now lying in state at Turangawaewae Marae in Ngaruawahia, where his Ngati Maniapoto and Tainui people are remembering his contributions to Maori and New Zealand.

His funeral is being held today with a service to be held before the funeral party departs for Kahotea Marae in Otorohanga. He will be laid to rest at Kahotea cemetery.

This year the Cook Islands had its chance to know Tia and to share friendships with him. He was appointed as the NZ High Commissioner to the Cook Islands for a two-year term in January.

Tia was previously Chief of Protocol at the Ministry, and director of its Maori Policy Unit. He was a strong advocate for a Maori perspective in New Zealand’s foreign policy.

In his first week on the job in Rarotonga he was full of praise for his new Pacific home.

“It’s a tropical paradise, a beautiful spot. I like what a lot of New Zealanders like about the Cook Islands – it’s a sunny place full of sunny people who are infectious and delightful,” Tia said.

He had extensive Pacific experience as High Commissioner having previously served in Solomon Islands, Fiji, France, Tonga and New Caledonia.

“I think being in Fiji during the 2000 political coup would be a highlight for me. I was withdrawn from the country and it was a situation quite out of the ordinary for a New Zealand diplomat.

“At that time there was a real worry for our New Zealand citizens over the political institution at the time,” he said.

Tia was born on July 24, 1947, in Wellington and was bought up on a farm in Pio Pio near Te Kuiti.

After finishing high school he studied English, French and History at Waikato University where he graduated in 1968.

Tia joined the NZ Foreign Ministry in 1973.

He said he ‘fell into’ working with the ministry after realising he no longer wanted to pursue his original career choice of teaching.

“I love the variety this job offers,” he said. “As a kid I’d always been fascinated by the world”.

He was High Commissioner to Solomon Islands and Fiji and had been posted in Tonga, New Caledonia and France. He also served as Official Secretary to Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright, and was Director of the Treaty of Waitangi Information Programme in 2003-2004.

From his many overseas postings, Tia became an accomplished linguist.

“I can speak fluent Maori and French, some Spanish, pigeon English from my time in the Solomon Island and a little bit of Fijian and Tongan.

“I don’t know Cook Islands Maori yet, but I want to learn,” he told CINews earlier this year. Tia listed his hobbies as playing golf, swimming and reading.

But it was his extensive community involvement that was most noted during his time in the Cook Islands.

Tia was an avid golfer, a member of Rotary, a member of Hash House Harriers and the Aotearoa Society. He and his wife Theresa hosted many social events at his Ngatipa residence including an opera night and functions for local community organisations.

The passing away of the gentleman and career diplomat has come as a shock to those who knew him.

Author Witi Ihimaera, who joined the then Foreign Ministry with Tia in the early 1970s, says he patiently worked to create a Maori dimension to the way New Zealand represents itself overseas, and created opportunities for other Maori to enter the diplomatic service.

As a consequence, he told Waatea News, many Maori are representing New Zealand in overseas posts throughout the world.

NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said Tia was highly respected after his long career as a diplomat.

“Tia was a respected diplomat, particularly in the Pacific where he served a number of postings. He was also a close and caring friend of colleagues at the ministry”.

Tia had been a strong advocate for a Maori perspective in New Zealand’s foreign policy, he said.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia described him as a “distinguished ambassador of our country”.

“Tia was quite simply a beautiful man – loving, respectful, and thoroughly good fun. It was a pleasure to be around him.”

Labour leader Phil Goff described Tia as a “distinguished and accomplished” man who served New Zealand well in whatever role he undertook.

Tia had a particular gift for putting people at ease, Goff said.

“He had a real ability to be able to relate to the people he was working with”.

Labour Party Maori Affairs spokesman Parekura Horomia said Tia would be sorely missed.

“Tia was a true gentleman. Our hearts go out to his family at this very sad time”.

Acting prime minister, Sir Terepai Maoate this week described Tia as an experienced diplomat who was very much dedicated to his job, but also someone who was extremely proud of his cultural heritage.

“A charming and delightful person, it did not take long for Tia to establish himself here on Rarotonga and become a truly good friend to many in the Cook Islands community. There is no question that Tia will sadly be missed by the many people he and Theresa befriended here in the Cook Islands,” he said.

Prime minister Jim Marurai wrote a condolence letter from Rome saying, “Tia was the consummate professional and a real joy to work with as he had his own way of bringing ease and sensibility to his role. We treasured his friendship and cannot express enough how much of a hole he leaves in our hearts”.

Tia is survived by his wife Theresa, children Nick and Caroline, stepchildren Nicholas, Owen and Tabetha Bradley and his many mokopuna.