Choosing to sit on the cross-benches over a seat at the governing table is a very real possibility for Te Pāti Māori as it weighs up its strategy for next year’s election

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is critical of both Labour and National’s record when it comes to Māori and says her own party doesn’t want to be swamped by either of them in any potential governing arrangement.

“We’ve got into Parliament with a really long-term view, and I think that’s quite frustrating for those who say you’ve got to deal with today, but actually we’ve got to stay focused on the bigger picture for Te Pāti Māori, and that may well mean sitting on the cross-benches,’’ Ngarewa-Packer told Newsroom.

The party has been polling in prime position this year to be king or queen-maker at the next election on the assumption it returns to Parliament via an electorate seat.

But Ngarewa-Packer says neither of the big parties have been “performing impeccably for Māori”.

“We’ve got National threatening to undo the Māori Health Authority, Māori wards, and have partners who are gaslighting about co-governance instead of partnership, and then you’ve got Labour who hasn’t been able to land Oranga Tamariki changes and have been slack when it comes to climate change,” she said.

Staying out of any governing arrangement that might be on offer at next year’s election could end up giving the party more freedom to deliver on the kaupapa it is in Parliament for.

Ngarewa-Packer says long-term goals like dealing with the “massive racism in Aotearoa and the disparities that exist for Māori” are integral to Te Pāti Māori’s identity, and there’s a risk that could be lost by joining a bigger party’s movement.

“To be really honest, we feel we first and foremost have to be honest and truthful to the kaupapa our voters and communities have asked us to be, and that might mean just staying where we are.”

For now there have been no formal discussions with National or Labour, the only cooperation currently underway is with the Green Party on like-minded issues like seabed mining and Oranga Tamariki.

“The reality is, it’s been three years by next year and we’re still plagued with the same issues, so we’ll be championing those same causes.” – Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Te Pāti Māori returned to Parliament in 2020 – after a three-year hiatus – when co-leader Rawiri Waititi beat Labour’s Tamati Coffey in Waiariki. The share of party vote meant Ngarewa-Packer won a list place.

There’s a real opportunity for her at next year’s election if newly elected Speaker Adrian Rurawhe decides not to contest his Te Tai Hauāuru seat, where Ngarewa-Packer lives.

Waititi plans to run again in Wairariki and the Auckland Māori seat of Tāmaki Makaurau will also be a focus.

Newsroom revealed in May Tāmaki Makaurau MP and Labour Cabinet Minister Peeni Henare had signalled to the party he would prefer not to contest the seat in 2023 – instead opting for a place on the party list.

Ngarewa-Packer says that would create an opening in Auckland and there’s also speculation on what Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis plans to do next year.

There’s a possibility the party will consider general seats, which has been discussed at previous elections.

“The party doesn’t have a view on that just yet,” she said.

“What we have learnt as a party is that it’s really important, we have a ground-up, grassroots campaign because that’s what got us back in.”

Finding Māori voters means being in all sorts of forums, which are often very different from where the other political parties are visible.

“We’re marae-knocking, we’re turning up to Matatini, kapa haka, sport – those are the forums where we are really vibrant and alive,” she said.

As for the issues, it’s a case of continuing to advocate for the protection of the most vulnerable, equity and equality, health, and education.

“The reality is, it’s been three years [by] next year and we’re still plagued with the same issues, so we’ll be championing those same causes.”

“It’s simple things like living equally, being able to afford to feed families and housing, and being well enough to be educated,” she said.

While many other political parties will be pleased by next year to not be talking about Covid-19 after 2020 was so dominated by the pandemic, Ngarewa-Packer says the past couple of years are a real “moment in time” for Te Pāti Māori.

“It was a moment of brilliance where we got to showcase how collective Māori stand up – we really averted what modellers saw as quite catastrophic for Māori.”

She says the success of the “collective movement” can be attributed to Māori grassroot organisations and its people.

Te Pāti Māori wants to see more services devolved to Māori in the same way the Covid vaccination programme eventually was, and that will be a big platform of its campaign next year.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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