Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer laughs at her naivety now. When she stood in the Te Tai Hauāuru seat against Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe, the Māori Party had been in the wilderness after losing seats in Parliament and having to start from scratch. It had little profile and few rated its chances. But Ngarewa-Packer got within around 1000 votes of causing an upset.  

“Adrian is so widely known and he’s understated. He’s a leader in the Ratana Church, a leader for us in iwi in Te Tai Hauāuru, so he was formidable, I don’t know what I was thinking,” she laughs.

But she believes the polls and the pundits that relied on them were proven, if not wrong, then mistaken. 

“The polls have never fared Māori well. If you remember 2020 Rawiri (Waititi – Te Pāti Māori co-leader) was 18 percent behind, even in the Whakaata Māori poll he was 18 percent behind. And we were pretty much told to take our billboards down and never come back. So there was a whole lot of analysts that were predicting we wouldn’t get in.”

But get in they did. And Ngarewa-Packer was only pipped by around 1000 votes by Labour’s incumbent at the time, Adrian Rurawhe.

Now, with three years building a profile in the public eye, Ngarewa-Packer’s run for the Te Tai Hauāuru electorate is not only eminently viable but could prove decisive to who gets into government this time round. 

The variables in the electorate have been shifting around quite dramatically for years since Dame Tariana Turia crossed the floor and voted against Labour’s foreshore and seabed legislation that caused a fractious debate on the extent of Māori rights and the overreach of the Crown.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Rurawhe’s political journey reflects that and him stepping down from the seat has now made it even more tightly contested.

Soraya Peke-Mason has stepped in to replace him as Labour’s Te Tai Hauāuru candidate, after he felt his electoral duties were being compromised by his role as Speaker of the House. Rurawhe will be on Labour’s list.

“He decided that because he’s the speaker you can’t serve the people. The people haven’t been served for the last three years, sadly. So it makes sense for him to go on the list and to step aside. People reflected and thought about things and I thought about things and yeah, it just makes sense.”

Peke-Mason, who has a background in business, local body politics and Treaty negotiations is no political novice herself. She has had a ringside seat on the shifting political allegiances in the region over a long period after previously contesting the general seat of Rangitikei and getting into Parliament as a list MP when Trevor Mallard retired.

Peke-Mason witnessed the fall-out for Labour over the foreshore and seabed legislation and stepped into the breach during Dame Tariana Turia’s dominance in the electorate in the wake of her departure from Labour and establishment of the Māori Party.

“There was good reason for Tariana to cross the floor. Clearly it was an issue at that time, was an issue for all of us, we were concerned about that,” says Peke-Mason.

“I ran against Aunty (Tariana) in 2011. Adrian and the Rurawhe whānau were staunch Māori Party then. So I ran against Aunty because everyone deserted Labour, understandably, because of the foreshore and seabed. I take my hat off to Aunty (Tariana) and everyone that was involved in establishing that movement.”

Dame Tariana held the seat with a healthy majority, although it had slipped slightly from her peak after the Māori Party aligned itself with National in government. But when she stepped down, the seat was up for grabs again. When Rurawhe, with deep connections within Ratana, came back to Labour, Peke-Mason backed his candidacy. Rurawhe took the seat in 2014 which he has held since, while Peke-Mason made her mark in local body politics.

Peke-Mason’s late father-in-law Harerangi Meihana was the Tumuaki (leader) of the Ratana Church, a movement she grew up in and has intergenerational connections to, as do all of the candidates.

The Ratana church’s influence in Māori politics is huge, but sometimes misunderstood. The church was founded in the early 20th Century by TW Ratana and was a social and religious movement before it was a political one. While there is a long-standing alignment with the Labour Party, the church leadership doesn’t give voting directives to the Morehu (a term that roughly translates as survivors or remnant but refers to the members of the church).

“My father-in-law was one of my biggest supporters in terms of the journey that I’ve been on around public politics, particularly around local government, the community here and our Morehu. He was staunch Labour, but he wasn’t the sort of a leader that would go out there and beat the drum about that. He was very humble and left it up to the Morehu to make their own minds up.”

Ngarewa-Packer observes that the legacy of the relationship between Labour, Ratana and Māori more broadly is shifting with a new generation.

“It’s not for me to speak about what and where and who our Morehu of Ratana support. I don’t know that our traditional ties politically, not just to Ratana, are the same for the next generation. My dad was a freezing worker and everyone voted Labour in our community. But as things have changed, so have our political relationships.”

“Economically, they’re up against it in a way that other generations beforehand weren’t. You were told, get a job, work hard, you’ll get your home. That’s not the case anymore. I think they’re up against so much uncertainty.

“I think there’s some intergenerational adjustments based on the fact of what they’re having to cope with economically and different expectations.”

While the church’s influence is social and religious as much as it is political and the strands can’t be completely separated out. Many of the social concerns that were prevalent in the days of the founder TW Ratana – poverty, Treaty rights – are still central to the concerns of voters that the candidates are hearing today.

Peke-Mason has come across those concerns up and down the electorate.

“Every town I go to you’ve got someone out in the street begging or you’ve got someone there that’s desperate in terms of drug addiction, those sorts of things. So they are the biggest issues around trying to make ends meet in the electorate. That’s everywhere. So cost of living is the big one, housing’s the other one, we’ve got people living in unacceptable housing rental conditions. Porirua, I picked that up there strongly. Other parts of the electorate, where people are finding it difficult to buy kai, because it’s so expensive at the moment.”

Ngarewa-Packer is seeing the same thing.

“I think our biggest issue is the fact that people can’t afford to live and in varying degrees. Some are calling it cost of living, some are calling it cost of surviving. And, you know, one of the biggest things we talk about is the fact of the matter is that 50 percent of our population are earning less than $30,000. So let’s not tax the first $30,000 you earn. That means that we are effectively putting a few 100 bucks a fortnight in the hands of our elderly, our superannuitants, our people who have benefits and our people.

“I think the cost of being able to afford to have a quality of life is the biggest thing across all generations, no matter who I speak to. Young and old.”

If they’re united on the issues that are facing voters in their electorate, they have slight differences on what they can bring to the table to address those issues.

And the Labour and Te Pāti Māori candidates are not the only option – National’s Harete Hipango has also thrown her hat in the ring. To complicate the picture further, Hipango has the support, even if informal, of Tariana Turia.

Peke-Mason was caught a little by surprise.

“I knew straight away it would be an interesting race, particularly when Harete entered. It did surprise me. Credit where credit’s due, I just find it amazing to have that kind of courage to talk your leader into letting you run in a seat that normally you don’t run in. It was interesting to see Aunty (Tariana) do what Aunty did and publicly support Harete.”

Ngarewa-Packer says while she respects Hipango as a candidate, National’s current attitudes towards Māori will not help her chances.

“I think Harete is wanting to grow the Māori presence for National. And I guess that that would have to be a long-term commitment from the party. Unfortunately, what I can sort of see is that there isn’t the commitment from the party.”

Newsroom made several attempts to speak to Hipango but got no response. 

Ngarewa-Packer has respect for both of the other candidates and says Dame Tariana’s endorsement doesn’t mean she doesn’t support the other candidates.

“We don’t have to be supporting one person just because they’re in one party. Whaea (Tariana) was also at my fundraising night. I just think it’s really important to tautoko whakapapa. But I guess the other part of it is that at some stage, when you want to go for a role as important as representing an electorate this large, you had to stand on your own merits. And people need to know that what you stand for, and that you’re good for them. So we can’t keep living off the good works and standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and other leaders without making sure that we’re capable of doing what our electorate needs, it’s a huge electorate and there are huge diverse issues and you need to be up for it.”

Ngarewa-Packer is quick to highlight the point of different that she has.

“I think all the candidates are really, really good people. They’ve all been involved in varying parts of their community. But the critical difference between us all is that I don’t have to report to anyone else. I am the leader. And I don’t have to go through Pākehā leadership or Pākehā caucus. We are a Māori, and the only indigenous Māori, Party. So I think that’s a critical difference, that our worldview is a Māori view, we don’t have to go through a mainstream party view of anything.”

Peke-Mason acknowledges that Ngarewa-Packer has built a high profile over the past three years, but wonders aloud if having to cover not only electoral duties but also lead the party could be too much for one person.

“Absolutely, she’s got a profile. That’s what they’ve done for the last three years. Nevertheless, I have a profile too in this electorate, that cuts right across the Rangitikei, Ruapehu and Wanganui area. They know me in Taranaki. They know me in Palmerston North. My focus is 24/7 as a member of Parliament to serve the people of Te Tai Hauāuru. Because I’m not a co-leader, what I bring to the table of our people when thinking about voting is that they will have someone that will be present and available to them when they need me.”

Ngarewa-Packer sees it the other way around, arguing that a leader can get more traction for the electorate.

“I think it’s really important and in fact we’ve done it in the past before with Tariana, where actually the electorate is represented stronger by having someone who’s in the front row, someone who is a leader and can push from a leader’s perspective. There are different interrelationships that we have as leaders with other leaders and certainly those other ministers in Cabinet and I think it’s an advantage for the electorate. The extent of the influence and the ability to fight at a high level when you’re a backbencher, you mean well but you just don’t have the same potency as a leader.”

Both candidates are slightly sceptical of the polls, which they think don’t reflect the reality on the ground and often don’t capture marginalised voters. Ngarewa-Packer says the results in the seat, and from Māori voters more generally, could throw up some interesting scenarios come post-election.

“Look at Manurewa marae for example. They are thousands ahead of where they were this time last last elections. So there are some Māori polling booths – and I know this because we’ve scrutineers in different ones – I think there’s going to be some buckling of a trend. Rawiri, myself and JT buckled that red wave the last elections where we had nothing going for us,” she laughs.

“The polls haven’t been big enough to actually get a real good idea of where Māori voters are gonna go. And I’m really looking forward to the surprise.”

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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