Te Paati Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi started off the term with clashes with the Speaker and a bit of interior redecorating. As part of a year in review series, they spoke to Newsroom about their working relationship and plans for the next three years
“Oh, are those still here?” Debbie Ngarewa-Packer mutters to Rawiri Waititi as they enter the room.
We’re meeting in Te Paati Māori’s new caucus room. A dozen old political cartoons from the Muldoon era adorn the walls – the source of Ngarewa-Packer’s scorn.
“We’ve been waiting for those to be taken down for weeks,” Te Paati Māori co-leader tells me, before grabbing one of the frames and trying to take it down. Waititi, the party’s male co-leader, suggests it could be dealt with later but Ngarewa-Packer pulls a chair to the wall to boost herself up and manages to take most of the cartoons down over the course of our conversation.
Waititi merely laughs and gestures for me to start asking questions.
Clashes in the House
The entire scene is emblematic of Te Paati Māori’s new approach to Parliament – and the two MPs’ relationship with one another.
On the one hand, Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer have already garnered a reputation for – depending on who you ask – rabble-rousing, troublemaking or standing up for their rights. Waititi repeatedly emphasises that the party has been following the Standing Orders, the rules of Parliament, in everything they do.
“Everything we’ve done has been according to Standing Orders. We’ve been well within our rights to be able to operate in that space,” he says.
“We never go there unintentionally. Everything we do is intentional. Everything we do is based on the Standing Orders. We’re pretty accustomed to sticking to protocols, because our maraes are the most protocoled places in the country. And you always find gaps in tikanga or in protocols. If those protocols or tikanga don’t work, you’ve got to evolve. You’ve got to change them to make them work.”
Waititi says the party doesn’t go out seeking a fight with Speaker Trevor Mallard, although there have already been a handful of showdowns in the House. On the first sitting day after the election, Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer walked out after Mallard refused to hear a point of order from them after Judith Collins had begun her own address. They said they were following the rules, while Mallard says you can’t make a point of order during someone else’s speaking slot.
“Imagine the chaos if every time someone was having a speech it was interrupted by out of order points of order,” Mallard told Morning Report the next day.
Mallard also rebuked Waititi on the second-to-last sitting day of the year for not wearing a tie, warning that he would not be allowed to speak again in the House unless he was dressed in what the Standing Orders define as “business attire”. The issue of ties in Parliament is a contentious one, but the rules are clear that they are currently required in the House.
Other efforts by the new MPs to leave their mark on Parliament have been more successful. The party now officially goes by Te Paati Māori in the House and has made statements and asked questions in te reo and English. The MPs also managed to put their own mark on the oath of allegiance, with Waititi performing a wero ahead of the oath and Ngarewa-Packer carrying a mere for hers.
The pair are also heartened by what they see as support from other MPs in the House.
“The reality is, 75 percent if not more of those who swore in in this House did it in the reo. And 75 percent of the House are not Māori,” Ngarewa-Packer says.
“Honestly I was just like, ‘Oh gosh, I can work in here.’ Cause you’re a little worried about what you’re coming to and how big of a maunga you’re going to have to climb. But we’ve had absolutely overwhelming support. Not Māori. Overwhelming support, from cross-party – particularly Labour but even a couple of Nationals. I guess when you shake up something, you do expect a little bit of loneliness, but they’re not even doing it quietly. They’re congratulating us publicly, in the gym and in the cafe.”
Te Tiriti o Waitangi
Waititi sees the acceptance of Te Paati Māori as part of a “global shift” in attitudes towards indigenous people. He thinks New Zealand is on the cusp of a transformative change in the Treaty relationship.
He also goes to some length to clarify that he isn’t opposed to the Queen being mentioned in the oath of allegiance.
“It wasn’t saying no to the Queen. We don’t mind the Queen being in the oath. But where is tangata whenua and where is Te Tiriti? You’ve got the Queen, you’ve got tangata whenua. And the only bridge between those two things is Te Tiriti o Waitangi. But none of those exist,” he says.
“There’s one partner [in the oath]. Where’s the rest of the Brady Bunch?” Ngarewa-Packer asks.
“I think Te Tiriti is a unique opportunity for us as a country. We don’t have to see ourselves as the same. We’re not,” Waititi says.
“It’s okay to have the two nations living on the one whenua. The sooner Aotearoa embraces that, the better. This is new Aotearoa I’m talking about – there is a progressive generation coming through. I think [they] will be more susceptible or more open to move towards a Tiriti-centric country. The Tiriti has created an opportunity for us to create, I think, the best country in the world.”
These are the principles that will inform Te Paati Māori’s advocacy over the next three years, the pair say.
“That’s our commitment here for the next three years, to ensure there’s a strong Māori voice in this space,” Waititi says, tapping the table with his finger.
“So there’s no passing of bills that have a detrimental effect on our people – like the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, which would allow warrantless searches onto marae and private homes. The other example is around Oranga Tamariki and the constant degradation of our people within that particular space. It’s mine and Debbie’s job to ensure there’s light being shone on that space.”
“Our maiden speeches signalled what we must bring focus for and use this platform for. We have a unique opportunity to bring to light issues that are uniquely Māori, but also issues that are plaguing our most vulnerable,” Ngarewa-Packer says.
“Our role is to hold the big parties to account, but also to work across party on matters that are more about our people and getting our people from being at the bottom of every tunnel or being at the top of every worst stat.”
Waititi says he doesn’t begrudge Labour’s Māori caucus or necessarily see them as opponents.
“We all have a role to play. They’re in Government, we’re on the cross-benches. In order to have a strong Government, you must have a strong opposition,” he says.
“We can move within a space they can’t. They are Māori within a general party. We are Māori within a Māori party.”
“We can highlight systemic racism and unashamedly, unapologetically help to dismantle that,” Ngarewa-Packer adds.
“What we are getting a sense of, certainly from this Prime Minister, is a desire to not ignore those big matters. We may have different ways of trying to dismantle, but we want to be a part of that.”
Whānau and humour
The two new MPs say they are looking forward to the next three years. They say there are two keys to their relationship – first, it goes beyond professional into the personal.
“We work really hard, we’re on the ground really hard, but we’re also really alike. Family man, family woman. Lots of kids, lots of kids,” Ngarewa-Packer says, gesturing alternately at Waititi and herself.
“Rawiri’s made us all go on keto. That’s how much respect and influence we have on each other. I’m not sure what I’ve made him do.”
“You keep me on my toes,” Waititi responds.
“Really, he’s just like a social, out-there, amazing. I’m probably more nerdy and conservative. It’s really great. I really look forward to driving through the storms to get to Wellington,” Ngarewa-Packer continues.
“We’re very whānau-centric. Our offices, the way we move, when we go to kaupapa, we have to take our whole whānau.”
“We ring each other on the weekends. We’re here most of the week. It’s more than just a working relationship,” Waititi says.
The second key? Humour.
“The good thing about us at the end of the day is that we have a really good sense of humour,” Ngarewa-Packer says.
“[John Tamihere] said to me, ‘You two really off-set each other really well.’”
“Young, old,” Waititi interrupts, pointing first to himself and then to Ngarewa-Packer.
“Gorgeous, not,” Ngarewa-Packer shoots back.
Then the pair burst into laughter.