Labour’s “bruised and battered” Māori MPs say they are “energised” for the election after a few months losing two high-profile ministers, but they are also wary with a senior member claiming this campaign is already the most racist he’s experienced.
Labour’s Māori caucus has had a tough year, to put it lightly. They lost Meka Whaitiri in a shock defection to Te Pāti Māori, which nobody saw coming.
Then, rising star Kiri Allan resigned as Justice Minister following a drink-driving incident and car crash after a high-profile relationship breakdown and associated mental health struggle.
The loss of Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, who gained a high reputation across Māoridom, also affected the caucus heavily.
It also followed Louisa Wall’s departure last year.
But as a testament to the sheer size and strength of the caucus - still 13-strong and record-equal to the 2017-2020 term - they appear fighting fit and energised to launch their campaign today at Ngā Whare Waatea Marae in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland.
“It’s been tough for us,” campaign chairman Willie Jackson tells the Weekend Herald of the year so far.
“But the mood is good. And this is about us coming together.”
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins will join Labour’s Māori caucus as they gather at Jackson’s marae in Māngere today, as they have to launch their past two campaigns, along with new candidates including Cushla Tangaere-Manuel, who is taking on Whaitiri in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti.
In 2017, the main news after the campaign launch ended up being then-leader Andrew Little admitting he had considered stepping down after bad polls.
Jackson said fewer fireworks were expected this time. The caucus is launching its manifesto, which Jackson says is less about bold new ideas - reflecting Hipkins’ reprioritisation and “bread and butter” cost of living focus - and more about consolidating what they have already achieved.
Jackson said the caucus was “very happy” with the GST-free fruit and vegetables policy, which was long advocated for by the Māori caucus - incidentally, their main rivals in Te Pāti Māori are advocating for taking GST off all kai.
“We can be a bit hard on ourselves, and yes we have had a few hiccups, but look at all the kaupapa,” Jackson said.
He refers to Te Aka Whai Ora - Māori Health Authority, record levels of spending on Māori housing, co-governance arrangements in the water reforms, and even the boost to Te Matatinin kapa haka funding - all stemming from recent budgets all at or near $1 billion for Māori initiatives.
The campaign would also be a contrast to 2017, when he led the charge to ruthlessly - and successfully - take all seven of the Māori electorates and, in doing so, kick Te Pati Māori out of Parliament.
Then, with Te Pāti Māori down to holding just one electorate from a high of four in 2008, amid a bitter battle, Labour decided to take all of its Māori electorate MPs off the list - a clear signal that if voters wanted those MPs in Parliament, they needed to back them. And it worked.
There was also a “personal” element at the time in that Jackson had toyed with the idea of joining the party before opting for Labour.
Fast-forward to 2023, and all recent polls show Labour would need to work with Te Pāti Māori to have any chance of forming a government after the election.
“It’s probably incumbent on us to work respectfully together, particularly if we’re going to come together at the end,” said Jackson.
He said they could look to set up some protocols with Te Pāti Māori about how they conducted the campaign and contested the Māori seats.
“Bruised and battered” and ready for the campaign
Māori political commentator and former Labour Party activist Shane Te Pou said the Māori caucus would be “bruised and battered” not only at a personal level but in losing highly-talented MPs.
“[In Allan] they’ve lost someone who was quite important for them, particularly from a policy development front, a former lawyer.
“They’ll be looking forward to the campaign getting out there amongst the people.”
Te Pou said Labour had been received well in recent Māori events and it would be interesting how Hipkins’ visit with senior Māori ministers to the Koroneihana celebrations in Ngāruawahia on Sunday went and their reception by Kiingi Tūheitia. National Party leader Christopher Luxon is also attending.
He said Labour was the favourite to retain Te Tai Tokerau with Kelvin Davis, Tāmaki Makaurau with Peeni Henare, Hauraki-Waikato with Nanaia Mahuta and Te Tai Tonga with Rino Tirikatene.
It was likely Te Pāti Māori would reclaim Waiariki through Rawiri Waititi and take Te Tai Hauāuru, but Ikaroa Rāwhiti was looking “50-50″.
“But I think that Māori Labour has a track record that it can defend itself on. Their achievements on Whānau Ora, Māori housing, trades training, pushing the Māori median income up and reducing poverty levels.”
Te Pou said the key to the campaign would be Jackson.
“He is seen as a scrapper within Labour and externally. He will be key in holding the seats they have.”
Northcote MP Shanan Halbert is part of the 2020 intake. He told the Weekend Herald after a “rocky” few months they were “energised” for the campaign.
Halbert is in a slightly less-assured position than others, with Northcote previously held by National and Halbert at 28 on the party list (he should be safe on current polling).
“We know what’s at stake, and the work that we’ve done over the last six years. We’re up for a fight.”
Tāmaki Makaurau MP Peeni Henare said the mood “was strong” currently, but admitted there was a stark contrast to the highs of 2020.
“We were known as the first XV, now we’re a league team (13 players).
“But I was part of the Māori caucus in 2014, and there were only six of us.
“So despite losing a couple of members, it’s still really strong and positive and everyone is gearing up for the campaign.”
Henare said it was the strength of the caucus that got them through the past few months.
“We’re colleagues but we’re Māori, whānau first. We look out for each other, support each other.”
It’s that strength that also gives them influence in Government - from Cabinet to policies to positions on select committees.
Henare, who is the party’s best te reo orator and advises leaders on marae and tikanga (protocol), said Hipkins and Ardern had quite different styles when it came to Māoridom.
Ardern was known for forging strong relationships across te ao Māori.
“Ardern went on more marae than probably any Prime Minister in history.
“But Hipkins has got his own style, and we are really looking forward to having him on more marae through the campaign.”
Henare and other MPs spoken to said Hipkins made no secret of the fact he had not grown up in a Māori environment and was still learning much but was a staunch defender of what Labour had achieved for Māori, including in debates around co-governance.
Henare said there was some concern among MPs already about the level of racism they were experiencing in the campaign.
“This is my fourth election and it’s changed significantly. It’s the most racism I’ve seen. It’s the racist rhetoric that’s been whipped up by the right, and it is particularly notable.
“We feel it is as candidates and as MPs, but the community is feeling it as well.”
He said within two hours of putting up a billboard in Onehunga it had been tagged with racial slogans.
“When we were putting up the holdings last weekend, racist people were coming up and trying to have a go at me. It’s nothing new to me, it’s just, I think, more heightened this time around.”
Current Labour Māori Caucus:
Kelvin Davis – Deputy Labour Party Leader, MP for Te Tai Tokerau.
Willie Jackson – List MP, Auckland-based; co-chair of Māori Caucus.
Willow-Jean Prime - Northland MP; co-chair of Māori Caucus.
Adrian Rurawhe – Current MP for Te Tai Hauāuru but going list-only at Election; Speaker of the House.
Peeni Henare – MP for Tāmaki Makaurau.
Nanaia Mahuta – MP for Hauraki Waikato.
Jo Luxton – MP for Rangitata.
Rino Tirikatene – MP for Te Tai Tonga.
Tamati Coffey – List MP, East Coast candidate at Election.
Shanan Halbert - MP for Northcote.
Arena Williams - MP for Manurewa.
Soraya Peke-Mason - List MP, candidate for Te Tai Hauāuru at Election.
Paul Eagle – MP for Rongotai (retiring at Election)
Kiri Allan – East Coast MP (retiring at Election)
Other Labour Māori candidates this election:
Cushla Tangaere-Manuel - Candidate for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti.
Georgie Dansey – Candidate for Hamilton East (31 on list).
Toni Boynton - Candidate for Waiariki (39 on list).
Pare Taikato - Candidate for Bay of Plenty (54 on the list).
Nerissa Henry - Candidate for Pakuranga (61 on the list)
Jamie Toko - Candidate for Waikato (73 on the list)
Departed since 2020 election: