Accusing Jacinda Ardern of disrespecting Māori by forming a government before special votes were counted, the new Māori Party leaders will this week ask for talks with Labour.

It is a short walk for Debbie Ngarewa-Packer next week; out the front door of the Supreme Court, across busy Lambton Quay and up the sweeping driveway to Parliament House.

But to get there, she and her Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi have come a long way.

From seeking to rebuild their communities – South Taranaki and eastern Bay of Plenty – from the ravages of land alienation. From lived memories of the brutal seizures in Taranaki, that the Waitangi Tribunal and former Māori Party co-leader Dame Tariana Turia called a holocaust, memories that still cut very deep.

What obligation should there be to wait for special votes to be counted before forming a government? Click here to comment.

For Waititi, confronting Petrobras’ oil mining survey ship on his Te Whānau a Apanui customary fishing waters in the eastern Bay of Plenty. For Ngarewa-Packer, fighting Trans Tasman Resources’ bid to extract vanadium-rich titomagnetic iron sand from beneath Ngati Ruanui’s south Taranaki coastal waters.

These are the battles foreshadowed in the very formation of the Māori Party in 2004, born out of anger at the previous Labour Government’s attempt to legislate away their ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

It’s these battles that have taken Ngarewa-Packer and Waititi to council, to court, all the way to the Supreme Court next week – and then to Parliament.

“Imagine if they still had Hitler’s portrait hanging on the wall of the German Parliament! That’s how it feels.”
– Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

And still, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is perplexed at the hostility they face. The offices they have been assigned in Parliament require them to walk, every day, past large portraits of colonist Edward Gibbon Wakefield, New Zealand’s first Governor George Grey, and long-serving Prime Minister Richard Seddon – the very men who she says sent in the soldiers and the guns.

“Imagine if they still had Hitler’s portrait hanging on the wall of the German Parliament!” she exclaims. “That’s how it feels.”

Last Friday afternoon, special votes secured Rawiri Waititi’s hold on the Waiariki electorate in the Bay of Plenty; and boosted their party votes to 33,632 (1.2 percent of votes cast), allowing Ngarewa-Packer to join him off the list.

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi greets former co-leader Dr Pita Sharples. Photo: Katene Durie / Maori Party

But just that morning, mere hours before the Electoral Commission announced the final vote tally, the Governor-General had sworn in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her ministers. The Māori Party leaders are perplexed and angry that she did not wait until the votes were counted. 

“You would think you would hold off, just a few more hours, to allow the process of democracy to run its course,” says Waititi. “And then to find out, actually, there’s another player here.”

Now, they are drafting a letter asking to sit down around a table next week, and negotiate a support agreement between Ardern’s government and the Māori Party.

As Waititi says, the Māori Party and its supporters have been consistent this year in offering to work with Labour, and if Ardern is seeking a third term in 2023, she may be very glad to have that support. “If you want political security, then everyone should be talking to the Māori Party – you have only one party that can go either way. It’s a very powerful position to be in.”

Is he issuing a warning to Ardern? “It’s a caution,” he says. “I think we’re going to be in a very, very strong position, come 2023.”

Rawiri Waititi – fighting for the underdog

Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi with his daughter Te Ohanui Waititi. Photo: Katene Durie/Māori Party

As a child growing up in the tiny settlement of Whangaparāoa on the furthest tip of the North Island’s East Cape, Rawiri Waititi learned to speak Māori first. When he and his brothers and sisters moved to west Auckland to live with his aunt, June Mariu, he says it was a culture shock. He had never before seen Chinese and Indian New Zealanders; yet like many of them he struggled at school speaking his second language, English.

He and his younger brothers and sisters lived with their aunty June in a house on Tawa Rd in Te Atatū – the same street where MPs Tau Henare, Tuku Morgan and John Tamihere all grew up.

Waititi, 39, describes himself as a mokopuna of the Waiariki iwi through his Te Whānau a Apanui, Ngai Tai, Te Whakatohea, Ngai Tuhoe, Ngati Awa, Te Arawa, Ngati Tūwharetoa, Ngai Te Rangi and Ngati Ranginui ancestry.

He trained as a teacher and, guided by Dame June Mariu, he worked with at-risk Māori youth in a centre she had set up, and at Te Whānau o Waiparereira trust. “They came in, head down, hoodies down over their heads, you could see there was just this cloud on these kids. By the time they left us, they were proud to be who they were.”

“We always advocated for the underdog, to stay firm in who you are. To not be afraid.”

Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi at home in his Waiariki electorate. Photo: Katene Durie / Maori Party

Eight years ago, when his oldest son was just three years old, he and his wife Kiri (a clinical psychologist and the daughter of former Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere) felt drawn back to his childhood home of Whangaparāoa. They took jobs with Te Whānau a Apanui and moved in with his parents on their dairy farm.

Six years ago, as a Labour candidate, Waititi challenged former Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell for the seat of Waiariki. He felt the Māori Party had sold out by signing up a coalition deal with John Key’s National Government.

But even as he campaigned for Labour, the father-of-five began to feel that the Māori voice in that party was actively suppressed. And that was only confirmed by Labour’s continued silence on the exploration licence granted to Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. So even before Flavell lost the Waiariki seat to Labour’s Tamati Coffey, and retired from politics, Waititi shifted his loyalties to the newly nascent Māori Party. 

He wants to do a deal with Labour that amends the “racist” Electoral Act to ensure that Māori are by default enrolled on the Māori roll, unless they opt out. And to completely overhaul government procurement to ensure Māori are able to bid for government contracts, “to ensure we can deal with the disparities our people face”.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer – beating the odds

Ngarewa-Packer attended only the first few days of the new MPs’ induction sessions last month; she was there more to support Waititi than in any serious expectation she would join him as an MP.

But even on election night, the 54-year-old says, when the “nerds and analysts were writing off the Māori Party”, there was one person who was certain that Ngarewa-Packer would be elected.

That was Whaea Tariana, she says, sitting quietly with Ngarewa-Packer’s parents at the loud election night party in Hawera. Throughout, the founding leader was adamant that the party would get 1.2 per cent – enough to return to Parliament with two MPs. And she was right.

The Māori Party’s mantra is whakapono – belief – and Dame Tariana never had any doubt.

Ngarewa-Packer  is determined to form a relationship with Ardern’s Labour Government that allows them to progress cross-party approaches to reducing poverty, and improving housing. And she says Māori should be allowed to change onto the Māori electoral roll whenever they choose, rather than being isolated on the general rolls. 

She grew up just round the coast in Pātea, a child of Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Ruahine, Ngā Rauru and Irish descent. As a teenager, she had to return home from boarding school when the local freezing works closed, and her dad lost his work.

But the story is well known: it’s one of whakapono. Local musician Dalvanius Prime led the community in recording a blockbusting single, Poi E, that went to No 1 and helped the community rebuild its identity. You won’t see Ngarewa-Packer twirling a poi in the music video; she was the young business leader selling the tickets to the concerts.

“That was the drive – we were all frontline fighters. The freezing works were closing, the banks were closing, the shops were closing. We had to believe in ourselves, and learn to fight.”

As an adult she was appointed Ngāti Ruanui chief executive, and when Covid hit, she (like Waititi) set up checkpoints on the roads into the iwi rohe. “It was to limit inter-regional travel, because we both came from areas with a lot of beaches, and there were boats and caravans coming through that shouldn’t have been there.”

She believes the story of the invigoration of the Māori Party echoes those stories that she has grown up with; the beautiful, taiaha-weilding tribal matriarch Ruaputahanga who kept the home fires burning and rebuilt her tribe, bringing together the people of the Aotea waka and the Tainui waka. And the rebirth of Pātea from the hardest of times.

She warns that anyone who writes off the Māori Party now – whether it be those electoral nerds and analysts, or Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – does so at their own peril.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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