Labour’s MP for Ikāroa-Rawhiti, Meka Whaitiri, has notified the Speaker of the House that she will no longer be voting with the Labour Party.
She will now be considered an independent MP in Parliament under standing orders, and intends to contest her seat in October for Te Pāti Māori, after notifying the Labour Party of her resignation.
In response Acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni has notified the Administrator of the Government to remove Whaitiri from her ministerial responsibilities as of this morning.
Whaitiri’s defection comes after Te Ao Māori broke the news of her plans on Tuesday night while Labour’s leader, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, was en route to London.
On arrival ahead of the King’s Coronation later this week, Hipkins told media he hadn’t heard from Whaitiri and she hadn’t returned his call, so he wasn’t commenting until he knew more.
In a press conference at Parliament, Sepuloni and Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis said they were “disappointed” with Whaitiri’s decision but were moving on.
They denied Labour had failed Māori and said Labour MPs knew nothing of Whaitiri’s intentions until rumours started circulating on Tuesday.
Sepuloni said a member of the public alerted her at midday and she informed the chief of staff, but nobody in the party was able to make contact with Whaitiri.
Justice Minister Kiri Allan headed to Hawke’s Bay on Wednesday morning where she met with Whaitiri, but no details of that conversation have been disclosed.
Davis says it’s for Whaitiri to explain her motivations, but she hadn’t raised any issues with Labour’s Māori caucus and had indicated she intended to contest her seat for Labour at the October election.
Whaitiri won the East Coast Māori electorate in a by-election in 2013 and has held it ever since – most recently in 2020 with a majority of 6000, and in 2017 she was 4000 votes ahead of then-Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox.
Te Pāti Māori had already announced Heather Te Au-Skipworth, Whaitiri’s cousin, had been selected to contest the seat at October’s election.
In an announcement from Waipatu Marae in Hastings this morning, Whaitiri was incredibly emotional as she thanked Skipworth for stepping aside to make way for her.
“The decision to cross the floor is not an easy one, but the right one,” she said.
Welcoming Whaitiri to the party, President John Tamihere described her move as one that goes from “being controlled by others to a party she controls”.
“It takes enormous courage walking away from a ministerial job and a sure thing, into the unknown,” Tamihere said.
Sepuloni told media earlier on Wednesday that Labour had no intention of invoking the waka-jumping legislation and wants to avoid a costly by-election, which she says is the last thing Hawke’s Bay needs as it remains in cyclone recovery mode.
Whaitiri told those gathered in Hastings that she had served tirelessly for the region over the past decade.
“Let me serve you again,” was her plea.
“I have spoken my truth – the decision is in your hands.”
Whaitiri is the minister for customs, food safety, veterans and is associate minister for agriculture and statistics.
She was influential alongside her then co-chair of the Labour Māori caucus Willie Jackson in helping Labour win back all seven of the Māori electorates in 2017.
In 2018 former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stripped her of her ministerial responsibilities for an altercation with a staff member.
Two years later Ardern brought her back into the fold as a minister outside of Cabinet, and she has failed to be promoted into Cabinet under Chris Hipkins’ leadership.
After Napier MP and minister Stuart Nash was sacked earlier this year, Whaitiri was given responsibility for cyclone recovery for the Hawkes Bay region.
Given there are no longer any Hawkes Bay representatives within the executive, Wairarapa MP and local government minister Kieran McAnulty, who already represents Wairarapa and Tararua on the cyclone recovery committee, will pick-up Hawke’s Bay responsibilities as well.
Ayesha Verrall will be acting minister for food safety, Peeni Henare for veterans and Damien O’Connor for customs, until more permanent decisions are made by Hipkins when he returns next week.