Oct 29, 2023 Politics
Tucked between two roundabouts on South Auckland’s Coronation Rd, the thoroughfare that cuts a north–south track down the heart of Māngere Bridge, is the suburb’s ‘village’ — the small, gentrifying strip that separates the lower-middle-class Māngere Bridge from its working-class neighbour, Māngere. The strip is home to the usual suite of gentrifiers: a real-estate agent’s office, a lawyers’ office, an independently owned supermarket and a flash burger joint. Yet plying this increasingly middle-class village is one of the Labour Party’s last working-class politicians: Willie Jackson.
Jackson is a Māngere local. His home, a white-coated villa in the suburb’s west, was once the home of former Labour prime minister David Lange. As he finds a seat on the village strip, wiping off a thin film of pollen, it takes less than a minute for the first passerby to recognise Jackson. “Kia ora, brother,” the politician nods back. While we drink our coffee, at least a dozen other locals acknowledge him, and a dozen more clock who he is without comment.
I’d made the trip south without meaning to meet Jackson. After appearing on a morning politics show, a friend and I were just passing time before making our way to the airport. But in the heat of a spring campaign, with the Opposition recording a tight lead over the government, Jackson is ubiquitous. As a key voice in Labour’s Māori campaign, he lists what’s at stake, describing the way, for most Māori, the issues are material rather than cultural: “jobs, education, housing — that’s what our people vote on”.
This coffee happened on the village strip in 2017. But six years later, the circumstances are oddly similar. Now, a National-led Opposition has a lead over a Labour government and its supporting parties, and a tightening job market, a maxed-out education sector and an inflating property market are the issues the 2023 election is likely to turn on. This time, I meet Jackson in his parliamentary office in Manukau, a corner suite in an industrial park off Lambie Drive, directly opposite an evangelical church. After six years as a minister, rather than the parliamentary aspirant he was in 2017, and now also the chairperson of Labour’s Māori campaign, Jackson seems notably older. “I’m 62, you know, but at least I’m younger than John.”
The ‘John’ whom Jackson is referring to is, of course, John Tamihere — friend and foil. The pair are possibly the most enduring double act in New Zealand politics. Between 2006 and 2013 they hosted a chatty, abrasive talkback show on Radio Live, in which they’d often spar with their less-than-progressive listeners — and each other. It was Jackson and Tamihere’s show that the then-Labour MP Shane Jones called into in 2010, to apologise live on air for renting “blue movies” on his ministerial credit card.
But Jackson and Tamihere’s history reaches back even further, to when they served in Parliament together in the 1999–2002 term. At that time their roles were somewhat reversed: Jackson was a list MP for the Alliance then became the leader of Mana Motuhake, a forerunner to Te Pāti Māori, while Tamihere was a Labour MP in Helen Clark’s Fifth Labour Government and about to be elevated to Cabinet. In 2023, meanwhile, Jackson is Minister of Māori Development in the Sixth Labour Government, while Tamihere is the former co-leader and current president of Te Pāti Māori.
An early observer, as Jackson explains, might not have expected this outcome. “Not many people remember, but back [in early 2017] I was in talks with the Māori Party. It was John who was in talks with Labour — I was his negotiator, and he was mine. But you know John, he blew it. I ended up with Labour and now he’s with the Māori Party.” Jackson, who had spent many years on the left with Mana Motuhake, one of the four parties making up the Alliance, is thankful events unfolded in the way they did. “Because I’m the left-wing one. John’s the conservative.”
Jackson is an unusual politician in that he is loyal — he will not say a word against Labour or its current and previous leaders Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins — but not tribal. The Labour MP has had a guiding hand in every kaupapa Māori party of the last three decades: Mana Motuhake, the Māori Party, and the Mana Movement. “I’m a union man,” he says. “That’s where I started out, and in a way that’s where I’m finishing too. When I joined Labour I was coming home. But I don’t care if you’re this party or that party. It’s about our people. If we can do good things for them from different parties, then I’m all for that. As long as I can see something good is happening, I can support anyone.
“You remember I supported charter schools back in the day. I didn’t do that because I was an Act man — hell, no! I did it because it was one way for our people to control what we taught, how we taught and where we taught it. Now I’ve changed my mind on that. You don’t need charter schools — you can do it with kura and kōhanga. But I was following the principle of giving our people the power they need to get things done. That’s the principle that drives us. Look at the Māori Health Authority. That’s by Māori, for Māori. Look at our procurement target. We’ve lifted that from 5% to 8%. That’s huge for our people on the ground who are doing business with the Crown. It’s by Māori, for Māori.”
Jackson’s principles come encoded in his whakapapa. He is of the famous Jackson lineage — a whakapapa line responsible for nurturing an All Black in Everard Jackson, a Kiwi league player in Fred Stanley Jackson, a public intellectual in Moana Jackson, and an activist and trade union leader in Syd Jackson. In many respects, Willie Jackson takes after his uncle, Syd, the brother of Willie’s father. In his early 20s, an eager young Willie was elected president of the Freezing Workers’ Union — the youngest president in the union’s history.
Today, trade unions are professionalised, staffed with university-educated lawyers, analysts and organisers. But in Jackson’s day union staff were more often than not drawn from the shop floor. To make it to the top required a special pairing of tough — the Freezing Workers’ were well known as a union for hard buggers — and smarts. Even four decades later Jackson retains the energy and manner of a union organiser. When we sit down on the record, he relaxes his shoulders, leans back in his seat, and speaks with the speed and passion of an organiser fighting for new members.
His is a Jacksonian charisma, but arguably Jackson’s caring instinct is from his mother’s side. Dame June Batley is famous in South Auckland for taking on anyone who needed help or a home. In public life, Dame June was the founder of the Manukau Urban Māori Authority, the matriarch of Ngā Whare Waatea Marae, and a member of all manner of government boards. In her personal life, the good dame would often house parolees in her own home. In these respects Jackson is the picture of his mother — he continues her work as the chair of Waatea Marae — down to the soft, dark eyes they share.
That all makes Jackson’s background of trade unionism, Māori politics and the South Auckland community unimpeachable. But his history in media and national politics has been, at times, fraught. When Labour leader Andrew Little announced Jackson’s list candidacy in February 2017, revealing he was jumping the political fence, Labour members, parliamentarians, and former parliamentarians quickly organised a campaign to oppose him. Within days, Young Labour had organised a petition against Jackson’s candidacy that gathered more than 400 signatures — including those of three former MPs — and public support from Christchurch East MP Poto Williams, who hired a PR agency to circulate her statement opposing Jackson. In a letter accompanying the petition, Young Labour cited Jackson’s problematic history which included his “views on charter schools and his comments concerning LGBTI issues”.
But his opponents had him back to front, Jackson explains. “I supported gay marriage and I always have. I remember when my uncle Syd stood up in front of the Federation of Labour [in the 1980s] and made the case for homosexual law reform. He said the law was wrong morally, it was wrong politically, and he won over the room. After his talk he said to me, ‘Nephew, now go and take that talk to your members.’ And I did, and our union supported homosexual law reform, and I supported gay marriage when it came up, too. It was John who was on the fence about that. This was the problem — Young Labour were confused. They thought I was John and John was me.”
At the time the controversy was breaking in 2017, Jackson had an unlikely ally in Ali Mau, the editor of the #MeToo project at Stuff. Mau’s support sprang from her observations of Jackson after the notorious Roast Busters radio interview on 5 November 2013. In the interview, live on air, Jackson and Tamihere had interviewed an 18-year-old woman calling herself Amy whose friend had allegedly been the victim of sexual assault by the Roast Busters group. The pair took a devil’s advocate position, downplaying the severity of the assaults and questioning Amy about the girls’ own actions. Tamihere, who tended to be the more devilish advocate in most interviews, including in this call, lost his job in the public furore and advertiser boycotts of the radio station that resulted. Jackson, the gentler of the two, who would often pull his co-host back, spent the next decade apologising.
After being taken off the air for the rest of the year, Jackson returned to Radio Live in early 2014 alongside a new co-host, Mau. Three years later, as the Young Labour petition against Jackson was gathering signatures, Mau took to Twitter about watching Jackson working with rape crisis groups until they were satisfied he had learned from his mistakes. “I sit next to him EVERY SINGLE DAY. We talk about these issues all the time. I’m a survivor of sexual assault myself,” she tweeted.
“I actually met with Young Labour,” Jackson explains, “because I wanted them to know I’m not that person, and actually when I get it wrong — and I get wrong all the time — I can learn from that. When I was running [the Manukau Urban Māori Authority, from 2009 to 2017] we poured resources into providers who were dealing with sexual assault… I also told them about my history in the unions, fighting for homosexual law reform and all of that, and I think they respected that.” Shortly after hearing from Jackson, Young Labour withdrew the petition. When the party list was released he was ranked at number 21, almost guaranteeing a seat in Parliament.
Despite the early machinations against Jackson, it took very little time for the humble list candidate to become a party power broker. When Labour leader Andrew Little made a late check-in at the Stamford Plaza on Albert Street in August 2017, arriving through its glass doors into the plush lobby as the party’s polling was crashing into the mid-20s, it was to meet his chief of staff, Neale Jones, chief press secretary, Mike Jaspers, and Jackson. There the four discussed whether Little, losing faith in his ability to lead the party, ought to step down. From that moment, the timeline is well known. Little did stand down and Jacinda Ardern stepped up, taking over the leadership, contesting the 2017 election in a blitz of youth and momentum, and becoming prime minister.
Jackson made it into Parliament and was immediately appointed a minister, taking up the Employment portfolio in October 2017 after it had been held for nine years by National Party ministers in a government supported by the Māori Party. The colleagues whom Jackson might have joined, former Māori Party co-leaders Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, were ejected from Parliament altogether after Flavell lost his seat in Waiariki. “I’ve always had a two-track strategy,” Jackson explains. “The Māori Party had two problems in the end. The first problem is they actually started to like the National Party — they’d become too close to John Key and Bill English. The second problem is they focused too heavily on the cultural side. The reo, the kapa haka, and that carry on. That’s all good. You need to take care of the cultural side. But in their nine years in government, they neglected the economic and the social side. Where was the funding for jobs and training? One reason [Labour] swept those Māori seats in 2017 [winning all seven] was because we were arguing for both — the cultural side and the economic and social side. This is why one of the first things I did when I got into government was launch Mana in Mahi.”
That programme — which “Winston [Peters] wanted to give an English name”, says Jackson — funds job-seekers into full- or part-time work where they can earn an NZQA-approved qualification. “We went hard on jobs because we had catch up to do after nine years of the Māori Party. In this [2020–23] term, though, we’re focusing on the cultural side, too — a huge funding boost for Te Matatini and even a public holiday to celebrate Matariki. Did you go to one of the celebrations?” Jackson asks. “If you did, you’ll know that it was a day of unity. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. And actually it puts a lie to your David Seymours, your Winstons, who say Māori policy divides us. Matariki brings us together.”
Jackson’s two-track strategy — covering both the economic and the cultural — is a significant factor in Labour’s recent success in the Māori electorates. Yet under Jackson’s leadership, one track is considerably more worn than the other. In Labour’s six years in government, Māori policy has generally orbited jobs (Mana in Mahi), housing ($380 million in 2021 for 1000 new homes for Māori) and health (Te Aka Whai Ora, the Māori Health Authority).
At the same time, Jackson’s meteoric rise in the Labour Party and his economic focus in government upset many of his old allies. In October 2017, Hone Harawira appeared in a segment on Te Karere, TVNZ’s Māori-language news bulletin, and broke protocol, addressing the camera in English to call Jackson a “dirty low-down skunk” after the employment minister said Māori had “moved on” from the foreshore and seabed controversy. The pair had been close in Harawira’s Mana Movement days, with Jackson providing advice and a friendly voice in the media. But they fell out after Harawira’s Te Karere stunt. Jackson called Harawira an “idiot” and stated that his own focus was “what’s in front of us, not what’s behind us”.
Jackson has weathered a lot of political and personal criticism. After an interview in December 2022 with Q+A’s Jack Tame, where Jackson defended the necessity of the proposed TVNZ–RNZ merger and teased TVNZ’s young star, referring to “your mates in National”, the New Zealand Herald’s Thomas Coughlan took offence on behalf of the journalistic profession and labelled the interview a “trainwreck”. Weeks of commentary followed, suggesting Jackson was in line for demotion. At the next Cabinet reshuffle, though, he was promoted to the top 10.
That reflects Jackson’s importance to the 2023 Māori campaign which, without him, would be dead on arrival. “I do my bit,” says Jackson. “But it’s about the team and you know, I’m not perfect. I was kicking myself when Meka [Whaitiri] left [for TPM, in May 2023] because I thought, ‘Did I check in on her enough?’” Despite the fact that Whaitiri quit Labour without even offering her colleagues the respect of a reason, Jackson blames himself. “Yeah, I do blame myself for that. I like to check in on our Māori caucus — see what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and who needs help. But I didn’t do that enough with Meka.”
In a party of short blokes — Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is 5 foot 8 — Jackson is a six footer. As a young man, he moonlighted as a bouncer, and his frame, and coiled step, suggest a former league player. Strangers might judge him a hard bugger, but as soon as he speaks he gives the game away. Jackson is also at the stage of his career where, on some matters, he is wistful. He struggles to offer a bad word about anyone — even praising former National Party leader Simon Bridges, though he reckons Bridges was “in the wrong party”.
The closest Jackson gets to an unqualified bad word — his usual formulation is “I like [X person], but…” — is about Act leader David Seymour, whom he calls “dangerous”. “He wants to roll back all the progress of the last 40 years. The Treaty principles? Put that to a referendum, he reckons. The Māori Health Authority? Gone by lunchtime. What gets me about this guy is that the Treaty principles are the [Crown’s] principles. It was the [judiciary] who defined the principles. Is Seymour seriously saying that he knows more than, that he knows better than, Lord Cooke? Does he know better than [former chief justice] Sian Elias? Does he know more than [current chief justice] Helen Winkelmann? Of course he doesn’t, and it’s the ignorance that makes him dangerous.”
Sitting with Jackson in his parliamentary office off Lambie Drive, we are very much in his community. Two kilometres north, where Lambie Dr meets Shirley Rd in Papatoetoe, is the office of Manukau Urban Māori Authority. Taking Buckland Rd northwest from Papatoetoe to Māngere, you’ll come to Waatea Marae and Waatea School, where Jackson’s wife, Tania Rangiheuea, is principal. Using Walmsley Rd to cut across the Southwestern Motorway, you’re back in Māngere Bridge. “I’ve spent my life here,” Jackson says.
Jackson is Ngāti Porou through his father and Ngāti Maniapoto through his mother, but what defines his politics, and his career, is his urban experience in South Auckland — his roots are dug deep into the soil here. This is where the edge comes off of his niceness; he fires up when talking about the practical effects of national politics on his community. “When I walk out onto the street, and I hear from our people, I’ll tell you what’s made a huge difference to their lives — banning no-cause evictions. We banned them in 2020, and that’s something our government isn’t good at talking about. I remember when I was at [Manukau Urban Māori Authority] and even then I was hearing horror stories. Families with children thrown out of their homes for no reason at all. And then when I became an MP and a minister in 2017 I was still hearing those stories. But under Jacinda we put a stop to it. For our people — and most of our people are renters, remember — that sort of security’s huge for them.
“But now this other lot — National and their mates — they want to bring it back. They’ll tell landlords you can kick out your tenants and you don’t even need a reason. There’s a lot at stake in this election, and you can see who the government and who Labour stands for. And you can see who the other lot stand for too.”