The Māori Party has kicked off its comeback bid, selecting its first candidate in the electorate once held by party founder Dame Tariana Turia.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer was selected as the candidate in the Māori electorate of Te Tai Hauāuru for the 2020 election at the party's annual meeting at Whangaehu Marae near Whanganui.

Ngarewa-Packer has the endorsement of Turia, who held the seat for 12 years before retiring in 2014 when Labour's Adrian Rurawhe won the seat.

It was the seat in which the contest between Labour and Māori Party was closest in 2017 - Rurawhe held it over the Māori Party's Howie Tamati by just 1039 votes.

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Ngarewa-Packer's selection was greeted with cheers from those at the meeting, and she told them she did not underestimate the job ahead but she was there to fight.

The selection also puts Ngarewa-Packer in a strong position to be the party's next female co-leader. Those positions will be decided by late January.

Ngarewa-Packer is the chief executive of the Taranaki-based Ngati Ruanui iwi.

She is well known for her campaign against iron sands mining from the seabed off the coast of Taranaki - a four-year battle she took to the courts.

Ngarewa-Packer said that was a "David and Goliath battle" that had prepared her for what lay ahead as the Māori Party tried to take seats back from Labour.

"We are here to fight. It's not going to be easy. We have a machinery that is up against us, and we have empty coffers.

The first thing we need to do is get our people back. We need to go back to our basics.

Until we can see our people are being treated better, a tangata whenua party is needed."

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Asked how she would beat Rurawhe, she said he was busy in Parliament in his role as assistant speaker, and she intended to be out with the people.

Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe and colleague Meka Whaitiri (l) at the opening of Rurawhe's office in the Te Tai Hauauru electorate in 2018. Photo / Stuart Munro
Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe and colleague Meka Whaitiri (l) at the opening of Rurawhe's office in the Te Tai Hauauru electorate in 2018. Photo / Stuart Munro

The head of Labour's Māori caucus, MP Willie Jackson, said Ngarewa-Packer was a strong candidate, but Rurawhe had a very strong campaign team which had out-organised the Māori Party in the past.

"But we don't under-estimate Deb at all. She's well known in the area, a strong candidate and knows the issues. So it's not going to be easy."

Ngarewa-Packer also has the endorsement of Turia, who said the party needed somebody fearless and she was "quietly confident" Ngarewa-Packer could secure the seat.

The Māori Party's annual general meeting was held at the same marae the party held its very first meeting, back in 2004 soon after it was founding after Turia left Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

There were about 70 delegates, a much smaller affair than in the Māori Party's heyday and during its time in Government.

The Māori Party was booted out of Parliament in 2017 after its former leader, Te Ururoa Flavell, lost the last remaining seat of Waiariki to Labour's Tamati Coffey.

Te Ururoa Flavell concedes defeat on elcetion night 2017. Video / NZME

Asked if she was worried about the party's survival, Turia said she could not understand how Māori spoke about "by Māori, and for Māori" "and yet they go out and vote Labour."

"Labour is not Māori. And the sad thing is, neither are the 13 members who represent the Māori voice. They are Labour."

Willie Jackson disputed that but said Labour's Māori caucus did have a challenge ahead.

He said the Labour MPs had secured significant funding for Māori in the Budget, and now had to make sure that made it through to the Māori people.

"The challenge lies with us in terms of making sure we deliver over the next year.

We've got challenges in the health area, the Whanau Ora area, we've got challenges in the housing area. Now we have to make sure we deliver that funding on the ground.

We're in the middle of trying to do that."

Māori Party President Che WIlson said he expected the next candidates to be selected by early next year.