Comment: The Prime Minister was entitled to be surprised, on landing in London today for King Charles’ coronation, to discover that minister Meka Whaitiri is quitting his Govt. She hadn’t even given him the courtesy of a heads-up.
But he shouldn’t be surprised that his deliberate steps to win back conservative rural and Pākehā come at a cost to Labour’s Māori vote.
Respected Te Ao Māori news journalist Wena Harawira broke the news last night that Whaitiri, who has been MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti since a by-election in 2013, will make her announcement at Waipatu Marae in Hastings this morning: she is jumping to Te Pāti Māori.
And in an interview this morning with Newsroom, the party’s president John Tamihere extends the invitation to her fellow minister and Māori electorate MP, Nanaia Mahuta.
Newsroom understands Whaitiri is likely to be followed by Labour’s Louisa Wall, in Manurewa, and joined by community worker David Letele, in Māngere. Te Pāti Māori is unlikely to win the general electorates, but will hope for visibility that significantly increases their all-important party vote.
The story can be traced back to that scorching summer day at the settlement of Rātana, in 2000, when Hipkins’ predecessor Helen Clark announced her plans to “close the gaps” that had left Māori lagging on most key social statistics – education, health, employment and justice.
These were the celebrations commemorating the church founder’s birthday. Labour was celebrating the restoration of the pact between the Rātana Church and the Labour Party, famously forged by TW Ratana and the first Labour PM Michael J Savage, and winning back all six Māori seats.
“We’re sick and tired of being the meat in the sandwich.”
– John Tamihere, Te Pāti Māori president
Yet a year later, Clark dissolved the special Closing the Gaps Cabinet committee she chaired and the phrase disappeared from all Govt communications – and especially from the Budget. Her Govt was feeling bruised by a pushback from the Opposition alleging “special treatment for Māori”, that culminated in National leader Don Brash’s famous Orewa speech demanding “one rule for all”.
At the same time, the Govt overturned a Court of Appeal decision recognising uninterrupted Māori title to the foreshore and seabed. That precipitated the resignation of minister Tariana Turia, who went on to found the Māori Party, as it was then, and to wrest her electorate away from Labour.
Labour held on only by the skin of its teeth at the 2005 election. Now it seems Hipkins is similarly clutching for re-election, by the same strategy: more or less abandoning this Govt’s co-governance strategy in the face of conservative opposition.
The reasons Whaitiri quit
Is that a factor in Meka Whaitiri’s resignation? The PM and the public may both have to wait until she speaks at Waipatu Marae this morning, to find out. He denies losing control of his ministers: “I haven’t had a conversation with Meka Whaitiri yet and I obviously want to do her the courtesy of hearing what she has to say, if anything, before I make a comment on it,” Hipkins says.
There were some warnings, though. In an interview published on the Hawke’s Bay App on Monday this week, Whaitiri said she had “absolute faith in former Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta,” who she said did an enormous amount of work on Three Waters.
In Hipkins’ reshuffle, she was deemed to have become a touchpaper for opposition to the water reforms, and replaced with Kieran McAnulty. And announcing changes to the reforms, Hipkins rejected the language of co-governance (though, like Helen Clark before him, the about-turn was more rhetorical than material).
“We’re seeing the maturity of our movement. We don’t need catalyst issues, we don’t need one-off issues. If I had a dream, it would be that we end up like the Greens in Germany, a constant present in Govt. That’s where we want to land.”
– John Tamihere
In this week’s interview, Whaitiri said iwi Māori were guaranteed unfettered possession of their natural resources – including water. “I’m a Māori, I follow the Treaty of Waitangi. And that’s what was guaranteed by those of my ancestors. And I have ancestors who actually signed the Treaty.”
“Co-governance is not about Māori taking over, but rather about ensuring better delivery of Treaty of Waitangi promises,” she said. “It is the Treaty Partnership, that’s what it is. And I’m miffed as to why people think it’s an issue or it’s something special because it’s something two peoples founded in this country back in 1840. So that’s what it is.”
The Clark Govt abandoned Closing the Gaps as soon as it got uncomfortable. The Ardern-Hipkins Govt dropped co-governance like a hot potato in election year. Te Pāti Māori could make a convincing pitch to voters that to lose one policy may be misfortune, but to lose two looks like errant carelessness.
Tamihere: Te Pāti Māori reaches maturity
As he prepared to be welcomed onto Waipatu Marae in this morning’s powhiri, Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said it would be a breach of protocol for him to discuss Whaitiri’s plans until she’s told her own whanau, in a few minutes’ time.
But he does reveal a strategy to build the party’s presence in Parliament that is wider than any one issues like co-governance.
“We’re seeing the maturity of our movement. We don’t need catalyst issues, we don’t need one-off issues,” he tells Newsroom. “If I had a dream, it would be that we end up like the Greens in Germany, a constant present in Govt. That’s where we want to land.
“A problem for Māori is we never had proper advocacy from Pākehā leadership, and we’ve seen that in Three Waters and co-governance.
“If that had been there, Three Waters would not have been such a force of reckoning for people, in terms of the backlash against us. And so we’re sick and tired of being the meat in the sandwich.”
“We are now going to advocate our side of the story, from our side of the fence. And we’ve been forced into this position.”
Whaitiri entered Parliament in 2013 by winning the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti by-election but was stripped of her ministerial responsibilities in 2018 over an altercation with her press secretary and allegations of bullying.
After the 2020 general election, she was reappointed as a minister but overlooked for promotion this year when Hipkins became prime minister, watching from the sidelines as Willie Jackson, Kiri Allan and Willow Jean Prime were shifted up the Labour rankings.
RNZ reports Whaitiri will replace Heather Skipworth as the Māori Party candidate for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti.
As a Labour candidate, Whaitiri won her seat handily in 2020 with 13,642 votes, with Skipworth second at 7,597 and the Greens’ Elizabeth Kerekere on 2,080.
But the NZ Herald’s Joseph Los’e, who worked for Tamihere until recently, reports that she had considered moving to Te Pāti Māori even back in 2000. “The fact that she was overlooked for promotion when Chris Hipkins became Prime Minister and promoted Kiri Allan and Willow Jean Prime up the Labour rankings, was the final straw and a perfect storm for Te Pāti Māori,” Los’e writes this morning.