It was a Labour Party Māori campaign launch without any new policies.
At his local Ngā Whare Waatea Marae in Auckland on Saturday, campaign chair and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson joked they had already been criticised for doing too much.
But it was a joke with a serious tinge to it.
With Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and the current Māori caucus present, along with new candidates, Jackson said their manifesto and the campaign would instead be about “consolidating” what they had already done - from the Māori Health Authority to Māori wards in local councils to Māori representation in the new water entities.
It was a chance to rally the troops ahead of, in the words of Hauraki-Waikato MP Nanaia Mahuta, what will be the “fight of our lives” - part reference to Labour’s recent polling and to what they stand to lose if National and Act are elected.
It was also a chance to lay out to the seven Māori electorates exactly what Labour had done and had been up against the past two terms in Government.
But while Jackson and Hipkins framed the lack of new policy as a positive move to highlight their achievements over the past six years, another part of the reason may have been on display that morning.
Hipkins joined local Labour Pasifika MPs at the iconic flea market in Otara. This was “bread and butter” Labour territory, to adopt Hipkins’ terminology.
But there was also a new party on the block: Vision NZ, which has roots in the Covid-19 protest movement.
A few dozen of Brian Tamaki’s party supporters/protesters sought to drown out Hipkins as he attempted to speak with constituents, excited at the chance to speak in person with the Prime Minister, even getting to nab a treasured selfie.
Labour supporters meanwhile sought to counter.
There was no clear message from the protesters, with the chants moving on from Covid and now spanning a range of anti-government conspiracies, and including transphobic narratives.
They effectively derailed the visit which ended up appearing rushed and quite short. There was no violence but a sinister element - one busker told the Herald he’d been offered money to abuse the Prime Minister as he came by, which he refused.
This comes amid anti-co governance rallies across the country with at times clear racist rhetoric towards Māori.
Several senior Māori ministers have told the Herald they’re already experiencing some of the highest levels of racism during this campaign, which still has nine weeks to go.
Jackson said they were concerned about this element and were taking extra precautions.
But Jackson’s quip about reining in their policy agenda could also have another aspect. Labour is going after some of National’s votes, and to do that it must align itself more in the centre.
With National in full attack mode on anything smelling like co-governance it appears Labour is seeking to dial down their own rhetoric and work with what they have, leaving anything more bold up to Te Pāti Māori - a potential partner after the election.
Hipkins has often spoken about needing to bring people along with progressive policies, particularly around te ao Māori and especially in co-governance.
Rather than a pause or a change in direction, it appears this campaign will be more vital than ever to Labour to do just that if it is to claw back those lost votes to National while also not further upsetting its base.
Hipkins was looking comfortable on the marae. He’s been open about his relative inexperience in te ao Māori, but his mihi in te reo appeared an improvement from when he spoke at Waitangi - something he said he’d promised to do.
“My te reo is a little like the relationship between the Crown and Māori - it’s a work in progress, and there is much room for improvement,” he said to much laughter and applause.
In thanking all of his MPs and Ministers, Hipkins also took a turn to thank their whānau, making special reference to Mahuta, who has faced intense scrutiny this year around contracts awarded to her husband, all of which have been cleared of any wrongdoing, alongside racist vitriol online.
“Māori MPs’ families and whānau get far more scrutiny than the families of other MPs and we have seen some of the really ugly side of it in recent times,” said Hipkins.
The Prime Minister again brought up a story of co-governance at a local park of his childhood in Lower Hutt, which today under partnership with Te Atiawa has “more kids playing sport than ever before”.
“There is nothing to fear,” he repeated, this time in reference to non-Māori concerns over the Māori Health Authority.
“We have been unapologetically committed to an approach that is about by Māori, for Māori and with Māori,” he said, almost stealing a line from Te Pāti Māori.
“I’m not going to make any apology for that because I think that that is the right approach for the Government to be taking. And I think that should be the approach regardless of who the Government is.”
He said Labour would continue that approach if re-elected because it is “what Te Tiriti o Waitangi committed us to”.
Despite not announcing anything new, the sheer strength of Labour’s Māori caucus was on full display.
After a tough few months - losing first Meka Whaitiri and then Kiri Allan - the caucus was looking energised.
Jackson joked they were in good shape with already a “few good weeks” behind them - a rarity for the year that’s been.
And the strength of their Māori caucus relative to the other mainstream party could not have been made more stark on Saturday, with National unveiling its party list.
Where Labour has six Māori candidates in its top 20 - or seven with Nanaia Mahuta who is going electorate seat only - National has just one: Shane Reti at four, and it is another 20 places down before Tama Potaka enters at 24.
The campaign launch was also a chance for the party faithful and media pack to hear their candidates in campaign mode.
Hauraki-Waikato MP Mahuta, who often speaks in a rather reserved fashion as Foreign Minister, laid it bare in an impassioned speech.
“If we want to ensure that we deliver on the promises we made six years ago, then we are in the fight of our lives,” she said.
“I, like the Prime Minister, like many of my colleagues ... are worried about an Act-National Government.
“Their tag lines are insidious, put it ‘back on track’, ‘taking our country back’.
“They will take us back to the 1860s.”
It appears Labour’s Māori candidates are revved up for the fight, but big questions remain if the fight will stay above board and those sinister elements are kept at bay.
The seven Māori seats and ones to watch:
Te Tai Tokerau - Labour’s Kelvin Davis is the clear favourite to retain the seat.
Tāmaki Makaurau - Labour’s Peeni Henare is also the favourite here to retain the seat he has held since 2014. His main rival will be Te Pāti Māori’s Takutai Moana Natasha Kemp, currently CEO of Manurewa Marae.
Hauraki Waikato - Labour’s Nanaia Mahuta is favourite to retain the seat she has held since it was formed in 2008. Mahuta has also given voters extra pressure by taking herself off the party list, meaning if they want her in Parliament they must back her in the electorate. There her main challenge will be from Te Pāti Māori’s Hana Maipi-Clarke, who at 20 could become the country’s youngest-ever MP.
Waiariki - Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi is favourite to retain the seat he won off Labour’s Tāmati Coffey in 2020. His main rival there will be Labour’s Toni Boynton, contesting for the first time.
Te Tai Hauāuru - This is one to watch, with Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer regarded by many as favourite to win the seat for the first time. Ngarewa-Packer was narrowly defeated by Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe in 2020, but Rurawhe - now speaker - has gone list-only this election. Soraya Peke-Mason, who also has strong ties to the Rātana Church within the electorate, has won Labour’s nomination.
Ikaroa Rāwhiti - This is another seat to watch. It is currently held by Meka Whaitiri, who made a shock defection from Labour to Te Pāti Māori earlier this year. Ngāti Porou stalwart Cushla Tangaere-Manuel has taken up the candidacy for Labour and sources spoken to on both sides of the spectrum say is currently too close to call.
Te Tai Tonga - Labour’s Rino Tirikatene is strong favourite to hold the seat he first won in 2011.
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 the 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: