Willie Jackson, who leads Labour’s Māori caucus, and John Tamihere, the co-leader of the Māori Party, are longtime friends and political allies. But not this election, writes Matt McCarten, who’s well acquainted with both of them.


One of the more interesting personal dynamics in the election campaign is the relationship between the Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere and Labour’s Minister of Employment Willie Jackson.

I know both men well and understand their responsibilities. And, to be clear, I haven’t discussed this column or my thoughts with either of them.

JT leads a fight to win at least one of the Māori electorates for the Māori Party next month and Willie leads the Labour Party campaign to stop him. Neither can afford to let the other one win. It seems surreal that JT was once touted as the future leader of the Labour Party and that Willie was the leader of Mana Motuhake (from 2001 to 2004).

These two have been personal, political, business, and media friends for decades. Many Pākehā can’t tell them apart. They frequently get praised and blamed for the other’s accomplishments and wrongdoings.

And they have a lot in common.

Both come from humble households where Labour Party traditions shaped their politics. Both became successful heads of Auckland Māori urban enterprises employing hundreds of people. Both were members of parliament in the Labour-Alliance government — JT as a Labour cabinet minister and Willie an Alliance MP. Many insiders were predicting that JT would one day be prime minister.

After their exits from parliament, they dedicated themselves to building their separate business empires. They also launched their hugely successful daily RadioLive talkback show that played on the good-humoured tensions between JT’s conservative Catholic social opinions and Willie’s secular liberal views. A year ago, JT made a serious tilt at the Auckland mayoralty. Both of them have established themselves as major political players — in and out of parliament.

I met Willie when we were both young trade union presidents in our 20s — him with the freezing workers and me with the hotel workers. The union movement was the university for working-class kids like us.

His dad, Bob Jackson, was a wharfie, and part of the historic 1951 industrial lockout dispute. His mother, June, built a successful not-for-profit organisation from nothing and received a damehood for her achievements. My father was a seafarer.

JT was the only child from his family to go to university. He did a law degree and, as a lawyer, he became a rising star in the Māori Affairs department.

Meanwhile, Willie and I immersed ourselves in the social justice causes of our time — opposition to apartheid and the Vietnam war, and support for abortion rights, workers’ rights, gay rights, and Pacific amnesty.

Willie’s extended family have been, and still are, at the heart of the fight for Māori. His father once said to me that he lived by the doctrine that no individual can ever be free from oppression until all are free.

When Willie was recruited to run for the Labour Party before the last election, there was an orchestrated campaign by various liberals to derail his candidateship. I saw  claims of sexist and homophobic comments attributed to Willie that had actually come from JT. But that didn’t seem to matter to a number of those in the woke community, who see one brown man as looking pretty much like another.

I’m sure it was distressing for Willie to be accused of homophobia when he’d mentored and supported young Māori gay men struggling with their sexual identities. I remember him leading his union’s campaign to educate the macho members to stop sexism and homophobia in the workplace. That was over 30 years ago.

Once Willie’s candidature was confirmed three years ago, he was charged by Jacinda Ardern to manage the Māori seats campaign. After winning all seven seats, Ardern appointed him a minister in his first term.

As co-chair of the Māori caucus, he’s been one of her main “go-to” people. At Labour’s Māori seats campaign launch this month, the PM praised Willie and referred to him as one of her surprising new friendships. Back in her time as prime minister, Helen Clark was complimentary too about her relationship with JT.

It seems like the stuff of a Shakespearean drama that any success either man has in this election will be at the expense of the other. If Willie keeps the Māori Party from winning any seats, then Jacinda Ardern surely must promote him into the full cabinet — and he’ll almost certainly be one of at least four Māori cabinet ministers.

On the other hand, if JT can pull off winning at least one seat against such a popular prime minister and her government, he’ll earn his place in history. Ironically, he’s standing as the co-leader of the Māori Party for Tāmaki Makaurau, which is the same seat he lost as a Labour MP to the then co-leader of the Māori Party, Pita Sharples.

Frankly, if the Māori Party is to have any chance of winning a seat, they need to forget about the party vote and focus exclusively on winning an electorate. Three-quarters of Māori already support Labour. Given that National and New Zealand First don’t run in Māori electorates, the Māori Party should pull in candidate votes by default.

Green Party supporters should be told not to waste their electorate vote on their candidates. They can’t win. Instead, supporters should be told to give their party vote to the Greens to them get over the 5 percent threshold nationally.

To the Labour supporters, it’s a clear message. Current Labour MPs will all be returned to parliament as they’re in winnable places on the Labour List. Voters giving their electorate vote to Labour makes no difference to how many Labour MPs there’ll be after the election. So the Māori Party could argue that the only way to pressure a Labour government to keep advancing the needs of Māori is by electing Māori Party electorate candidates.

Putting these machinations aside, both Willie and JT have the same mission they’ve always had. They’re committed to empowering working-class Māori in the communities where they grew up. They’ve used their political and business smarts to build powerful entities to support Māori in urban areas. The practice of past governments has been to steer resources to iwi-based elites. But that never worked because most Māori don’t live within iwi boundaries or have a relationship with their iwi.

Both men understand the power and central importance of politics to devolve the state domination of resources to community players. For generations, the white state has been paternalistic at best, and racist at worse. As a result, Māori are forever at the bottom of the heap.

Whether Willie can keep JT out or not, they remain powerful voices of Māori emancipation. Politics determines who sits at the cabinet table when the important decisions get made on policy and resources.

September’s election will see if either of these working-class boys gets to sit in the big room. It can’t be both.


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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