Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Seat war stoking Maori interest in Labour

Shane Taurima is one of Labour's options for the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Shane Taurima is one of Labour's options for the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection. Photo / Paul Estcourt

It doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker, but there is a certain fairytale quality to broadcaster, the bureaucrat, the poker guru and the man who fostered 200 children.

The way things are shaping up, the contest to become Labour's candidate for the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection, following the death of MP Parekura Horomia, will be more of a cliffhanger than the byelection itself.

When there were only three names in the ring, things were a bit easier. There was Meka Whaitiri, who returned from a career as a public servant in 2009 to head Ngati Kahungunu Inc. There was Henare O'Keefe, who impressed the party hierarchy with his life of fostering troubled youth - 200 of them, no less - and working to stamp out violence in his Flaxmere community. And there was the young buck Hayden Hape, also on the Ngati Kahungunu board but who came to fame for his skills in online poker.

To begin with, the talk of the ideal candidate was rather sentimental. Labour wanted someone like Horomia, someone who need not have grand oratorical skills but already had strong grassroots connections in the electorate as an advocate for the people.

O'Keefe appeared to have the edge, courtesy of his back story. Alas, political parties are rather like magpies. They think they want the humble, nourishing worm until something shiny and new catches their eye.

Enter Shane Taurima, whose entry into the contest has made it too close to call. This is not to diminish Taurima's abilities for the role. Taurima is an eloquent speaker and his reasons why he is best suited for the seat are as compelling as the other candidates'. His pitch is the one of a local boy who was sent out to make something of himself and is now ready to return home.

On the selection panel on Sunday, the members' vote could well be the casting vote, so the most canny of the nominees have been busy recruiting as many of their whanau and friends as possible to join the party in a bid to stack the selection vote. The party closed that process last night, when nominations closed.

Whaitiri has produced a video in which her sons outline her achievements and movie director Taika Waititi gives her a cheeky endorsement. Taurima has also reportedly been hard at work building up a support network. Each has added a little bit of bling to their pitch. Whaitiri's mother Mei was the model for Napier's Pania of the Reef statue - and Mei also appears in the video. Taurima has pointed to his Ratana Church background and the fact that it was his great-uncle Tiaki Omana who unseated Ngati Porou's Sir Apirana Ngata in 1943.

If the party hierarchy and some members are split between O'Keefe and Taurima, Whaitiri could easily come through the middle, especially if she has harnessed the women's lobby.

Taurima is the one with the most at risk. He has been loyal to TVNZ and is one of broadcasting's gentlemen. However, in the media as much as politics, perception is everything. After two decades of putting his leanings to one side, it will now be difficult for him to return as head of Maori programming at TVNZ, no matter what steps are put in place to distance him from editorial decisions.

Some of the programmes he oversees, such as Te Karere and Marae Investigates, will be covering not only the byelection, but the Maori Party leadership issue and next year's election. There have already been questions raised about this.

Taurima's announcement he would seek Labour's candidacy was given coverage on Te Karere, coverage other potential candidates from both Labour and other parties did not enjoy. Given the risks, it seems unlikely Taurima would seek the candidacy without some level of assurance that he will have a chance with Labour in 2014 even if does not get the Ikaroa-Rawhiti selection. It may well be that the party is banking on an eighth Maori electorate emerging after the Maori Electoral Option, most likely to be around the Auckland region where Taurima currently lives. He may also be considered for a good list placing.

Whatever the result, the level of interest and the calibre of candidates the seat has attracted will hearten the Labour Party. Parties down on their luck don't tend to attract many candidates. So the byelection gives a perception, at least, of a renaissance in Maori interest in Labour.

Although there is nothing shabby about the candidates the Maori and Mana parties are standing, there was not the same level of competition or interest. Labour ended up with the nominee the Maori Party wanted, Henare O'Keefe. The Mana Party is standing Maori TV presenter Te Hamua Nikora, whom leader Hone Harawira describes as "more popular than me". The Maori Party has opted for the solid Na Raihania again, a step that will at least save them some money by allowing them to re-use his 2011 hoardings.

Both parties have described it as a "two-horse race" between their own candidate and a Labour candidate. Commentator Morgan Godfery was probably more accurate when he said the only 'two-horse race" was for second place.

Otherwise, the show is all about Labour. Labour's Maori caucus has been muted in recent years largely because its three key players have been winged by personal circumstances. Horomia had struggled with his health for some time before his death, Nanaia Mahuta was trying to raise a family and deal with iwi issues and until recently Shane Jones was effectively sidelined for most of the past year while the Auditor General looked into his decision to allow Bill Liu citizenship. The byelection has provided a much-needed boost for Labour in Maori politics.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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