Tamati Coffey (Labour) and Rawiri Waititi (Māori Party).

Matt McCarten on the implications of the Waiariki result— and the two challenges looming for Labour: the choice of the deputy prime minister and the make-up of cabinet.


What goes on in Waiariki on election nights?

In the 2017 election, Waiariki stunned the political world — and last weekend it did it again. Both times, the voting has had a dramatic effect on New Zealand’s political scene. Three years ago, Tamati Coffey came from nowhere and dethroned the leader of the Māori Party, Te Ururoa Flavell — and, in doing so, also took out Marama Fox, who’d been the party’s co-leader since the 2014 election. It seems only Tamati Coffey saw that coming. 

I remember talking with Tamati about his campaign a year before his win. He had no team, no money. A few local members were undermining him, and one, it seems, was a plant for the Māori Party. At that stage, the Labour Party at national level felt Tamati had no chance, and they said, privately, that they wouldn’t be directing any resources to the seat.  

In the last week of the 2017 campaign, Willie Jackson told me there was a slim chance Tamati could pull it off. Arms were twisted to change Jacinda Ardern’s schedule to visit Waiariki. A few days later, the Māori Party’s 12-year run in parliament was over. Tamati Coffey quite rightly was the toast of his party. His political future looked bright. 

Forward three years to the election last weekend, and there was Tamati dumped in favour of the Māori Party’s Rawiri Waititi. This was the same night all six of Tamati’s Māori colleagues were returned in their seats. And, in the two adjoining Māori electorates, Nanaia Mahuta and Meka Whaitiri increased their majorities. General seats sharing the same geographical space as Waiariki went Labour. 

Tamati’s hope is that the special votes could save him. But that’s a stretch. There’ll be about 3,000 specials, and he’ll need to win 60 percent of them. No show. 

Through the campaign, there were rumours at local level that he was taking the seat for granted and wasn’t sticking to script. That’s probably unfair. Rawiri Waititi was a formidable opponent and ran a focused and well-funded campaign. 

It’s ironic that Rawiri was Labour’s Waiariki candidate in 2014. Even more surreal is that he’s the son-in-law of John Tamihere (“JT”) who led this year’s Māori Party campaign. This is the same Tamihere whose parliamentary career ended when he lost his Labour seat to the Māori Party. 

Some Māori Party members opposed JT’s ascendancy to their party’s leadership and resented his strong advocacy for Rawiri’s selection over another local nominee when the party was choosing its Waiariki candidate. But it’s now clear that, if JT hadn’t stepped in, Tamati Coffey would still be the Waiariki MP and the Māori Party would’ve been banished into the wilderness, possibly for a generation. 

The Māori Party is back in the game. Both JT and co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer came close to winning their seats. Given that half of New Zealand’s voters opted for Labour, this is an extraordinary result — 62 percent of voters in the Māori seats gave Labour their party vote. 

JT’s experience and talent shone through in his media appearances. Strong performances by Debbie Ngarewa-Packer make this duo a force to reckon with. They understood Māori wanted the return of an Ardern government. Therefore, they cleverly focused on the electorate vote. Māori overwhelmingly gave Labour their party vote, with enough voting for Māori Party candidates to allow Rawiri Waititi to sneak through. 

Labour won’t win this many votes again. If the current Māori Party leadership stay, they can win Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauāuru at a canter. If they really focus, they could sweep all seven seats. 

The mistake the previous leadership made was insisting Labour was always the enemy. They then became beholden to National. That error of judgment wiped them out. Māori will always back Labour over National. This election’s preliminary results show over 85,000 party votes for Labour and barely 4,500 for National. 

Interestingly, the only election materials I got through my Auckland Central letterbox was for the Māori candidate. Nothing from Labour. The Māori Party message was crisp and clear. A simple pro-Māori agenda. Māori who choose to enrol on the Māori roll do so for a reason. Focusing on this constituency is the pathway to electoral success. 

The next election has already started. The Māori Party has over 1,000 days to pick away at Labour whenever it makes a mistake or fails to deliver for Māori. 

Meanwhile, there are two huge targets looming — the choice of the deputy prime minister and the make-up of cabinet.

When Andrew Little’s leadership was under threat in 2017, the Māori MPs remained loyal. Jacinda Ardern’s senior backers offered the Māori caucus support for Kelvin Davis to be her deputy. When Winston Peters was deputy prime minister, all was good. One of his jobs was to be the PM every Thursday. Jacinda did Tuesday and Wednesday.  

But Kelvin is not Winston Peters. He could be eaten alive. The Labour Party and Kelvin know it. So does National. That’s the chink in Labour’s juggernaut. 

Kelvin Davis in good man. But he’s not quick on his feet, doesn’t read a room well, and isn’t an instinctive performer. You only have to see his performance on election night to understand that.

Personally, he’d rather not be deputy prime minister. He knows he’ll be the number one target for a desperate and resentful National Party. There’s no question that Grant Robertson would be the outstanding choice. That’s why Jacinda is fudging when the role is raised.

But this is where politics, optics, and management collide. 

If Kelvin is asked to step aside, the Māori Party would have an election-winning message. They will claim that Māori only have “pretend jobs”. When it comes to real power, Pākehā take it back. There are 15 Māori MPs in the Labour caucus. How does Jacinda explain that a Māori was needed to win the election, but not needed as a leader afterwards? Good luck with managing that fallout.

The other challenge will be the cabinet. Now that New Zealand First is out, there will be three fewer Māori in the room. The normal Labour caucus convention is that one out of every five ministers is Māori. The current Labour-led cabinet has just two —  Kelvin and Nanaia Mahuta. Meka Whaitiri was sacked and wasn’t replaced. 

Given the importance of the Māori Party threat and the power of the Māori caucus, Jacinda is surely going to have to select five. The obvious ones are Kelvin, Nanaia, Peeni Henare and Willie Jackson. The fifth is a choice between rehabilitating Meka Whaitiri, who deserves it, or promoting Kiri Allan, who is unquestionably a rising star. 

Every Labour MP knows every misstep over Māori by their leadership will be amplified by the Māori Party. The Māori Party are laser-focused on winning their seats off them. 

Three years ago, Waiariki sent the Māori Party a message: “Don’t ever take the Māori vote for granted.”

This election, they gave Labour the same message.

The prime minister and every Māori MP should have that message prominently displayed above their desk. 


Matt McCarten (Ngāpuhi) is a unionist with a long involvement in politics, mainly as a political strategist and organiser with the Alliance and then the Labour Party, where he was formerly chief of staff. He’s based in Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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