Te Paati Māori returned to Parliament with a roar last year – swimming against a giant red tidal wave – to claim the seat of Waiariki from Labour. But the party has waded into a debate this week that is equal parts courageous and trivial, writes political editor Jo Moir

Last week Te Paati Māori was nowhere to be seen.

While every other political leader and dozens of MPs travelled to Waitangi to meet with iwi leaders and be hosted by Ngāpuhi, Te Paati Māori made the decision to stay home.

Their reasons for doing so were out of respect for those in the North concerned about a recent Covid-19 case in the community and a desire to protect kuia and kaumātua from any unnecessary out-of-town visitors.

What that meant was the party had no oxygen in a week they should have dominated.

It also came not long after MPs, including the Prime Minister, were uninvited to Rātana celebrations while Mōrehu (followers of Rātana) sorted out their own internal affairs.

Two big events on the Māori political calendar and Te Paati Māori were radio silent.

But in the last 48 hours co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer have successfully orchestrated an entire media cycle.

In a Pākehā world a debate about whether to wear a tie or not is easily written off as unimportant.

But when that debate is centred around a Māori MP, in this case Waititi, choosing to wear a hei tiki taonga in place of a tie, there’s a much broader point about expressions of cultural identity.

When Speaker Trevor Mallard refused to recognise Waititi in the House on Tuesday because he wasn’t wearing a tie (defined as business attire in standing orders) he didn’t really care about the tie at all.

This was the second time Te Paati Māori had very publicly challenged the Speaker’s rulings – the first being late last year when Waititi accused Mallard and Parliament of discrimination by not letting him speak in the address in reply debate unless he accepted it would count as his maiden speech.

The problem with Mallard is he knows how stuffy and archaic some of the standing orders and rules are, but is inconsistent with his flexibility.

Bring your babies into the chamber or your dogs to Parliament offices – sure.

But wear a taonga in place of a tie and you’re booted out of the House.

In this case Mallard doesn’t actually care if MPs wear a tie or not – his preference is not to wear them – but he does care about having his authority challenged so publicly.

Te Paati Māori didn’t take part in the consultation on whether to get rid of ties or not and Waititi says that’s because his and Ngarewa-Packer’s votes wouldn’t have had any impact on an “overwhelming majority” in favour.

Waititi says he read the standing orders, which refer to business attire and being able to adorn cultural dress, and decided taonga fitted the bill.

On learning it didn’t, Waititi used Parliament and the platform it provides to make the issue about race and colonialism.

Waititi isn’t the only male Māori MP in Parliament though.

Those in the Labour Māori caucus have been outspoken about there being far bigger fish to fry, even going as far as to say it’s a “publicity stunt’’.

Waititi’s points about cultural identity are valid and warrant a change, but that could have taken place in the Speaker’s office ahead of Question Time on Tuesday.

But having been shut out of the headlines in recent weeks, it’s not surprising Waititi grabbed his moment in the spotlight.

Even Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson offered him a “congratulations and well done’’ for making an item of clothing a national story.

Waititi won this battle because his points are valid and, as he says, he comes from a new generation with an “unapologetic streak’’.

What Te Paati Māori chooses to use its powerful platform for next is anyone’s guess.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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