Te Pāti Māori has been head-down campaigning in an environment one of its co-leaders describes as a “positive vibe and energy”.

Though race relations, co-governance, and debate around health inequities have stirred up toxicity and negative language toward Māori at public meetings and events, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says it’s not something that’s played a role in her campaigning.

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“The sad part about it is there is this growing underbelly that we don’t see in the worlds we mix in, if I can say it like that.

“But then we come out of that, and we see a lot of it is about us.

“It’s a really sad place that things have got to,” Ngarewa-Packer tells Newsroom.

The co-leader is running in the electorate of Te Tai Hauāuru, after coming into Parliament in 2020 on the list.

Young Māori she knows and engages with “don’t see and don’t practice the underbelly of some of this generational politics that has been normalised.

“The world we’ve been campaigning in is just the complete opposite to what it is that we’re hearing and seeing as the underbelly. I just keep saying to people, it is the underbelly not the norm.”

Ngarewa-Packer says she has spoken at many events and meetings where the majority in the audience have been non-Māori, and she hasn’t received or heard any of the vitriol she’s read and heard in other parts of the country.

She also says she doesn’t know a single non-Māori “who thinks and acts like what we’re hearing”.

‘I think we need to have these conversations more often. Once we start that conversation we can talk to each other better, we can find common ground.’ – Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Though Ngarewa-Packer says she’s seen, heard and been exposed to it at times in the House at Parliament, or had incidents previously that have required security measures, it’s not a feature in her campaign.

“I keep hearing all the time, this is how extreme Pākeha think. Well, I don’t’ know any who think like that at all – old, young, bold, not bold – I don’t come across anyone normalising that thinking.”

After being nervous about attending a meeting discussing co-governance in New Plymouth, Ngarewa-Packer said the experience was only positive.

There were about 300 people there, mostly non-Māori and middle-aged or older, “and not one was divisive”.

“Not one behaved in the way we hear is happening, and I take heart in that. Generally, as a country, we’re open minded.”

She said she opened her comments in Taranaki by saying she was the third generation of a family who endured confiscation.

“We lost everything – our language, our Reo, our land,” she told the crowd.

“But not once has anyone in my hapū, family or iwi ever taught us hatred or to hate.”

Though there’s no denying it happened and it will take time for her to reconcile that, Ngarewa-Packer told the audience nobody ever taught her to “hate as a consequence of it”.

“I think we need to have these conversations more often. Once we start that conversation we can talk to each other better, we can find common ground.

“It’s not about taking anything away from anyone else,” she told Newsroom.

Eyes on the future

Te Pāti Māori is focused on winning all seven Māori seats but accepts only five are probably in reach.

“We know it will be tough in Hauraki-Waikato and Te Tai Tonga.”

Those seats are held by Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta and Rino Tirikatene, respectively, who are both Māori royalty and have won the electorates comfortably over successive elections.

Because of that, and to keep the younger generation high on the list, Te Pāti Māori has elevated its two candidates in those seats – Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke and Tākuta Ferris – to number four and five, behind the co-leaders and Labour defector Meka Whaitiri.

The party is anticipating a tight race in Tāmaki-Makaurau against Labour’s Peeni Henare and is expecting some success in Te Tai Tokerau, which is held by Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis.

“It might take a couple of terms to win the last of some of those seats,” Ngarewa-Packer tells Newsroom.

The party also has candidates running in general seats at this year’s election in recognition that a number of Māori are on the general roll.

Though most parties are campaigning to be in government, Ngarewa-Packer tells Newsroom that’s not the focus for Te Pāti Māori.

“We’re not here fighting to get into government, we’re probably the only party that isn’t.

“We’re the party that got kicked out of Parliament in 2017 and we know we have to grow our movement,” she said.

“It may look radical, but we have to be that to be transformational.”

That means a focus on getting rangatahi voting and involved in politics, so the party is even more prepared by the 2026 and 2029 elections.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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