Aug 3, 2023 Politics
When Meka Whaitiri left the Labour Party, her constituents in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti were probably left scratching their heads. She did what? Why? Whaitiri made an emotional announcement at Waipatu Marae in May insisting that leaving Labour and resigning from the government was the right thing for her personally. Yet why it was the right thing for her to do was left unsaid. Did she fall out with the party leadership? Were her attempts at reform in her portfolios thwarted? Did she judge Labour was failing in its historical mission as the workers’ party? Or did she think it was disrespecting its historical relationship with Māori?
In the days and weeks following Whaitiri’s defection, the answer to those questions — or any questions at all — went largely unanswered. As the people of Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne ripped up their sodden carpets, drained their soaking yards and fields, cleared their mud-caked roads and began restoring their communities, their local MP and the Minister for Cyclone Recovery just up and left.
Immediately after Whaitiri’s announcement, it seemed likely that, as a popular incumbent with a 6000-vote majority, she’d return as the MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti after the October election — regardless of whether she stood for Labour or Te Pāti Māori. But more than a month later it appears increasingly less likely that Whaitiri can convince her constituents to grant her a fifth term. If Labour can field a minimally credible candidate, she’s almost certainly finished.
In part, this is because her timing was so insensitive. The storm clouds had barely cleared in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne before Whaitiri made her announcement, surrendering any decision-making power to shape the cyclone recovery as the responsible minister. But the greater threat to her fifth term is her continuing failure to offer compelling reasons for why she did what she did. Even to a broad-minded constituent, it must seem, at best, self-indulgent or, at worst, silly to resign as the Minister for Cyclone Recovery at the same time that your constituents are attempting to recover from that very cyclone. This is especially so when the clearest stated reasons for defecting from Labour to TPM are because you felt unheard and underwent a kind of spiritual awakening.
Of course, for Te Pāti Māori whether Whaitiri is the favourite in October or not is beside the point. Instead, the party can point to that most precious political resource — momentum. After Labour’s incumbent in Te Tai Hauāuru, Adrian Rurawhe, took up the speakership and decided not to contest the seat in October (which follows in the pattern of other list-only speakers), the path was cleared for TPM co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer to pick up a second electorate seat for the party. Ngarewa-Packer is building an army of door-knockers and pamphleteers. Rawiri Waititi, who won Waiariki against the incoming Labour tide in 2020, should reliably increase his majority as the Labour tide recedes. The party, then, is guaranteed at least two electorate MPs. A third MP would be a treat on top. Indeed, on current polling the party might bring that third MP from the list, assuming the party vote holds at between 3% and 4%.
One of the unspoken rules of MMP is that when Labour is weak, the parties to its left benefit, and when National is weak the parties to its right are the beneficiaries. The Greens are holding at 7–10% and TPM is polling at its highest level in at least a decade. But for TPM, the polling high is perhaps less to do with Labour’s weakness and more to do with the message discipline of its co-leaders. Every political issue is framed and repeated with reference to Māori. The only other party leader with comparable message discipline is David Seymour, who can reliably frame and repeat taxpayers, taxpayers, taxpayers.
But if Waiariki, Te Tai Hauāuru, and Ikaroa-Rāwhiti are looking shaky for Labour, where does that leave Auckland’s Māori seat, Tāmaki Makaurau? At the 2020 election the Labour incumbent, Peeni Henare, who is also a minister, regained the seat with a slim 927-vote majority. No commentators were predicting a race that close. In 2017, Henare had secured the seat with a 3800-vote majority over his TPM rival. The assumption was that, given a Labour wave was crashing over the country, Henare would ride the break and record a similarly commanding majority. Yet TPM president John Tamihere ran Henare uncomfortably close. In an election where the tide is going out, can Henare survive? A gambler might decide to place their money on TPM’s Takutai Moana Kemp. In the last Cabinet reshuffle, Henare was demoted and stripped of his cherished Defence portfolio. Instead he was gifted — or cursed — with ACC which is a vast portfolio with unexploded landmines everywhere. Voters might judge that, in light of his demotion, the prime minister is signalling Henare might wish to consider his future.
But that reading is very much a gamble. Strangely, if Henare does return with a safer majority, he might owe a debt to Whaitiri, whose departure from Labour is highlighting what Labour did achieve in the last five and a half years. And a good deal of those achievements involve additional funding for Whānau Ora. As it happens, Henare is also and has been since 2017 the Minister for Whānau Ora. That’s a strong case in which to mount a campaign for re-election. The shape of play, then, is that Te Pāti Māori holds Waiariki and picks up Te Tai Hauāuru; Labour holds Tāmaki Makaurau and Ikaroa-Rāwhiti (just!); and the other electorates remain comfortably with their unbeatable incumbents (no one will beat Rino Tirikatene in Te Tai Tonga, ever). But only a fool would place bets on any of this.