Five years into her parliamentary career, Meka Whaitiri has been suddenly thrust into the national spotlight this week.

In a shock announcement on Thursday afternoon, Whaitiri will stand aside from her portfolios, notably Customs Minister, while a staffing matter in her office is investigated.

It's understood the staffing matter involved an alleged incident during a heated argument with a staff member.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she had accepted Whaitiri's offer to stand aside while the investigation was done.

Whaitiri, 53, was born in the rural Gisborne settlement of Manutuke, but grew up in the freezing works town of Hawke's Bay's Whakatu, where her whanau was "staunch union members'' supporting Labour.

"I was raised in a whanau of freezing workers," She told Hawke's Bay Today in 2013.

The Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP began her working life in the local meat works, later gained a masters degree and represented New Zealand in both netball and softball.

She met former Ikaroa-Rawhiti Labour MP Parekura Horomia when she was 21. "He gave me my first job at the Department of Labour". He had been a close friend of the family.

Following his death in April 2013, she was picked as his replacement for the seat. In the by-election she posted a 1761 majority ahead of her nearest rival, Mana Party's Te Hamua Nikora.

At the time, she said: "I can see the struggle our people are engaged in on the day-to-day and I want to seek selection as the Ikaroa-Rawhiti candidate to continue the legacy of service that has been left in this electorate.

''I have dedicated my life to one of service. I see this as the next step in my journey of giving to our whanau, hapu and iwi in Ikaroa-Rawhiti."

She made her maiden speech in parliament in August 2013 and stated: "Our people need jobs; our rangatahi need opportunities here at home; and our kuia and kaumatua need access to quality health services."

Whaitiri, who has two sons, worked as a senior public servant, senior adviser to the Minister of Maori Affairs, Treaty negotiator and chief executive of the third largest iwi, Ngati Kahungunu Iwi for four years.

She was schooled at Hastings' Karamu High School where she was head girl in her final year.

In 1954, her mother, Mei Whaitiri, was the model for Napier's iconic bronze sculpture Pania, which still sits on Napier's Marine Parade.

The family marae is Te Poho o Epiha, in Manutuke, where the MP has traditionally spent the past two election nights.

Meka Whaitiri voting in September, 2017. Photo / File
Meka Whaitiri voting in September, 2017. Photo / File

Last weekend, she played for a parliamentary netball team against a Hawke's Bay invitational team at the Hawke's Bay Sports Park in an annual memorial match to honour Horomia.

She told media any parliamentarian talking politics on the day "would be fined".