Māori politics is a story of rapid rises and sudden falls – and this year the Māori Party is back on the scene

It’s perhaps been underplayed amid the most dominant party victory in a generation, but the 2020 election saw the rebirth of New Zealand’s second MMP phoenix.

The Māori Party became the first party not headed by Winston Peters to re-enter Parliament a single term after it was voted out of office, with Rawiri Waititi winning the Waiariki seat from Labour’s Tamati Coffey and co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer scraping in after the special votes came through.

It’s a remarkable change from the bitterness of election night in 2017, when the party’s outgoing leader Marama Fox accused Māori of crawling back to Labour “like a beaten wife to the abuser”.

So how did the party do it? And given it now nominally sits in Opposition, what will the next three years hold?

“I think, in fact, Māori had voted strategically [in 2017]”, says The Hui executive producer Annabelle Lee-Mather.

“They were hoha with the Māori Party over their relationship with National.

“While there didn’t seem to be publicly a lot of introspection going on, clearly there has been. We’ve seen a real change in the governance leaderships of the Māori Party. We have people like Che Wilson – the president – Kaapua Smith [the vice-president].

“We see a new generation taking the reins, and clearly they were acutely aware of the reasons why Māori fell out of love with the Māori Party.”

What were those reasons? Many and varied, Lee-Mather suggests.

Among them a focus on improving the positions of iwi leadership, rather than Māori more broadly; as well as ongoing issues with inequities in health, education and crime – and little progress being made to address them.

Many of the personnel from the 2017 campaign vacated their positions, including both the co-leaders, and Lee-Mather says this helped to energise the party.

Its new MPs – neither of whom were in charge of the Māori Party this time last year – reflect that.

“Rawiri Waititi is a phenomenal candidate, who reflects the values of the Waiariki seat. He is a Ringatū minister … he’s a native speaker, he’s a nationally known identity on the kapa haka scene … he represents the values and aspirations of a new generation of Māori – Māori who want to return to their iwi and work in their service.”

Lee-Mather says Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is another judicious choice of MP.

“She is someone who can walk easily in te ao Pākehā and te ao Māori: she has a marketing background, she’s worked for TVNZ, for Telecom. She did a master’s degree, she studied at Stanford … she’s someone who works easily in both worlds.”

While the Māori Party’s celebrations are understandable, it now finds itself in a curious position: nominally in Opposition, but without natural allies.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what tack the party will take in the House, but former political journalist and PR consultant Scott Campbell says it needs to act strategically to make sure it has accomplishments to point out come 2023.

“What I would hope to see is that the Māori caucus inside Labour reaches out to the Māori Party and at least consults with them, brings them inside the tent.

“The risk is that the Māori Party are not seen to achieve anything over the next three years … there’s a real risk of that. They’re in the crossbenches – they’re not in government, they’re not really an ally to National and to ACT.

“I think they will say that suits them fine. Because they’ll have the ability to talk as Māori – not as anyone else.”

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