This summer the Chronicle is bringing you another look at some of the best content of 2019. This story originally ran on October 09, 2019
About a year from the next election, the Māori Party will meet in Whanganui this weekend to try to nut out how it can get back into Parliament. Its hopes largely rest on the shoulders of party president Che Wilson. Claire Trevett talks to Wilson to find out more about him, how he intends to save the party, and whether he would side with National or Labour if the Māori Party were a kingmaker.
Late on election night 2017, as then Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell shed tears over the end of the party's 12 years in Parliament, Che Wilson got out his laptop at his Hamilton home and started listing what had gone wrong.
Six months later, Wilson put his hand up to be the party's president, replacing Tukoroirangi Morgan.
"We didn't listen. We stopped listening to our people, and that's why we lost. It's that simple," Wilson says of that loss.
Now the 43-year-old is the party's public face, and his shoulders bear a large part of the burden of trying to secure its comeback after a resurgent Labour Party recaptured all the Māori electorates.
He has a lot of work ahead.
About a year out from the election, the Māori Party has no co-leaders, no candidates and presumably very little funding.
The party's remaining team will meet at Whangaehu Marae, near Whanganui, this weekend as it sets about rebuilding its base.
It is Māori Party co-founder Dame Tariana Turia's marae.
The media have usually been welcomed to the Māori Party's annual meetings, but this one is a closed-doors event.
Wilson said it is a nuts and bolts meeting. New co-leaders will not be appointed there, although he expects that to happen by the time politicians roll up to Ratana next January.
"We wanted to tidy up shop and make sure that we aren't just jumping to the first personality that might get us a few votes. Because we need to win, and we need to have a clear strategy over a number of elections, not just this election."
Getting back into Parliament will require three things: The right candidates, the right electorates, and Labour making a blunder.
Wilson may also be hampered by the fallout of former co-leader Marama Fox's company going into liquidation - saying he is simply focusing on rebuilding the party and its policies.
Wilson himself seems an obvious candidate for the leader and as a candidate in the Te Tai Hauauru electorate.
However, he has committed to staying in Hamilton at least while his two children are at school.
"I haven't ruled [standing] out, but at the moment I'm comfortable in the place I am in."
Wilson has identified Te Tai Hauauru and Waiariki as the two electorates in which the Māori Party might stand the best chance. Those were held by Turia and Flavell until 2014 and 2017 respectively. Others reckon Tamaki Makaurau could be the chance, especially if there is discontent over the standoff at Ihumātao, in South Auckland.
The third factor that would help the Māori Party is a Labour blunder on an issue that affects Māoridom.
There is no shortage of issues on which that blunder could happen: Ihumātao, water reforms, and Oranga Tamariki come to mind.
Wilson has been proactive in speaking out on all those issues, coming to hui at Parliament over the Oranga Tamariki practice of taking children, and challenging Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to front up to Māori on Ihumātao during anniversary celebrations for the coronation of the Māori King.
Wilson regards Ardern highly, saying she was "a rock star" internationally.
"She does some pretty cool stuff for us internationally and she was amazing at Christchurch. But she is part of the beast, which doesn't really like dealing with the challenges associated with Māori."
He says the Crown buying the land at Ihumātao and returning it to Māori is the only viable option to settle that issue.
"All Labour needs to do is do nothing and that will help us massively. The problem is, it doesn't help our people with them doing nothing."
Labour has already learned the hard way from the Foreshore and Seabed Act that one issue is enough to complete change the landscape in Māori politics. It will be more careful now.
As for the National Party, if it is hoping a comeback by the Māori Party will provide it with a potential government partner, it could be disappointed.
The Māori Party was booted out of Parliament in 2017 after three terms as a support party for the National Party. Wilson has learned from that.
Asked now whether he would prefer to side with National or Labour, Wilson says he is comfortable with both.
"It's really just what the political climate is. But I think the most important thing is our people would prefer us to go with Labour. So, it's whether Labour would be interested in working with us."
Wilson is one of those annoying people to profile about whom nobody has a bad word to say.
He laughs when he is told this, and suggests the Herald speak to one of his eight siblings for a contrary view. He was, he admits, rather spoiled as the youngest child of nine.
Well connected, he has respect of both National and Labour MPs. He used to work with Meka Whaitiri and is fond of her. He knows Willie Jackson well, and National MPs regard him highly.
New Zealand First MP Shane Jones says Wilson is a very strong speaker on the marae, and could be a danger if the Government misstepped on an issue such as Ihumātao.
Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little has a great deal of respect for him, describing him as "a really impressive guy". He adds, only half-jokingly, that it was a pity Wilson was in the wrong political party.
He was less certain about whether Wilson could save the Māori Party. "They've got their own challenges about what they stand for. [After the foreshore and seabed] They never worked out 'where next for them?'"
National MP Todd Muller first met Wilson some years ago after they both did a short course at Stanford University, in California.
"He's one of these remarkable Māori leaders who pour the best of their energy into progressing the interests of their iwi and wider whānau and hapū.
"There's a sort of steely humility about him, a generosity of time with people like myself."
He said Wilson could easily adjust to the role of a politician. "The same test of judgment and application, and the ability to frame an argument and bring people with you has been what he has lived and breathed for the last 10 to 15 years."
Wilson is of course also well connected in Māoridom, serving as one of the Māori King's 12 tribal advisers and working with the iwi leaders' grouping.
In March 2018, Wilson stood next to Little at Raketapauma Marae to sign the Ngāti Rangi settlement deed.
On his hip was an old axe.
"That's a pātītī. And the pātītī, I chose to wear that as a sign of not forgetting our fight.
"That's why I wore my blankets for our signing agreement and at the last reading at Parliament, just to remember there have been so many broken promises against such a loyal, willing and far too forgiving partner."
The blankets represented the exchange of land for beads and blankets. He said for the Whanganui river tribes, those blankets were sometimes laced with arsenic.
Wilson was young for a chief Treaty negotiator, chosen by the iwi elders for the role.
His iwi is based in Ohakune, at the foot of Ruapehu.
It was there Wilson grew up, the youngest in a family of nine children and at least nine (Māori adoption) whāngai siblings.
"When I was being raised there were 14 of us at home, including Mum and Dad. It was a staunch Catholic family."
His father was a carpenter who worked at the pulp mill and in forestry, his mother was an early childhood teacher.
Wilson's interest in Māori politics and rights started when he was 12.
"I was in a Rotary speech competition. It was an English speech competition but I was the only student from my school in it and we were hosting it, so the principal asked me to do a brief mihi before I did my speech. I got disqualified.
"I was just really embarrassed but I realised later that was what triggered the fire in my belly."
He took part in the annual Whanganui River journey a few months later in which iwi travel along the river to assert their authority over it. There is a hut on that river half-built over a Māori burial site.
"I was shocked because you could see the marked graves under the building. That triggered a whole sense of injustice. That was the first formal, political event I engaged in."
Wilson has an eclectic array of achievements. They include a children's book on the uses for the pikopiko (fern shoots).
He is also a composer of waiata. He wrote the waiata for the Ngāti Rangi settlement.
He has also contributed one to the British Museum. Called E noho nei au, (Waiting for Warmth) the chant was displayed in a 2006 exhibition at the museum and it mourns the taonga held in overseas museums.
"There are only two people in the world who have ever written a song for the British Museum. One is myself and the other is a guy called Mozart Amadeus."
He has long had political ambitions and he and his two friends had talked about a Māori party.
Then along came the Māori Party, set up by Wilson's aunt, Turia, after her walkout from the Labour Party over the Foreshore and Seabed Act.
Wilson was living in London when the foreshore and seabed hīkoi happened in 2004. He joined the Māori Party from afar and has since helped develop policies and strategy.
He stayed in the background until that night of the 2017 election, when the Māori Party lost its last seat.
Soon after he put his hand up to be president, telling Turia he would do so.
"I knew it would be make or break and it could be my own political suicide if we lose, but I've seen so many benefits and because I understand our political system, I think it's a no-brainer. But politics is a fickle game."
He has less than a year to come out on the "make" side of that scenario.