Willie Jackson says 2023 is a “much different environment” to 2017 when he led the Labour Party charge to ruthlessly - and successfully - take all seven of the Māori electorates and, in doing so, kick Te Pati Māori out of Parliament.
“It got a bit nasty... it was a bit personal then, it was probably the wrong attitude to take,” the Māori Development Minister and Labour Māori seats campaign chairman tells the Herald, though without admitting to any regrets.
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. But this time around, Jackson said it was unlikely Labour would take the same approach.
Labour taking all seven seats come October is looking increasingly unlikely, with Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi looking strong to retain Waiariki, which he claimed off Labour’s Tāmati Coffey in 2020.
Fellow co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is also regarded as the favourite to take Te Tai Hauāuru, the current seat of Speaker Adrian Rurawhe, who recently announced he was going list-only for this election and has been replaced by Soraya Peke-Mason.
If that were the case, the party would hold the enviable position of ‘kingmaker’, with the ability to decide who becomes PM and on what terms.
And with that looking increasingly likely, in the case of present polling, Jackson’s language in 2023 is much different to that of 2017.
“Can we work with them? You know, to be fair, they sort of work with us now, in all sorts of initiatives.
“They make all these big statements, but we have a good relationship with Deb and Rawiri.
“They met with Chippy [Prime Minister Chris Hipkins] a couple of weeks back and put their different kaupapa down.”
Jackson said MPs in each party knew each other well.
“It’s a different thing in the Māori world. You know, we are all friends and whānau. We give each other a crack, and then have a kai together and plan the next hui together.”
Asked if it could even be beneficial to have the support of a party that might be more closely aligned with the Labour Māori caucus on certain issues than Labour as a whole, Jackson said that was not the case.
“They always go for perfection. I go for what’s possible. I don’t need Maori Party MPs to show me the way in terms of what’s right.
“But if that were to happen, there’s no problem working with them because we’ve worked with both of them in the past.”
In 2017 Te Pāti Māori - then the Māori Party - was coming off nine years, three political terms, working in a coalition government with the National Party.
It was a deal the party said was out of necessity, to ensure Māori got anything at all from the political system. But it also saw the party accused of supporting policies detrimental to Māori, despite achievements such as Whānau Ora and progress on Treaty settlements.
Labour sought to exploit these concerns with voters, and thus emerged a bitter 2017 election campaign and it taking its Māori seat MPs off the main list.
But now, Jackson said the “environment has changed”.
Jackson said currently the view was for MPs to go on the list and run for the seat, but this could change.
“There are a few different views in the Māori caucus. The general rule is to stay on the list, but we are tossing around the idea.”
The three “marginal” seats Te Pāti Māori is targeting
Jackson said he accepted Waiariki would be a difficult seat for Labour to win back, with Te Tai Hauāuru and Tāmaki Makaurau both also “marginal”.
“We’re probably an outside chance in Waiariki,” Jackson said.
Waititi won the seat in 2020 by just over 800 votes from Coffey - who recently announced he was retiring - and looked likely to have increased his popularity since.
Jackson said they would be announcing a “very promising” candidate there, potentially in the next week.
“They will have their work cut out, but you have to remember Waiariki still has a very strong Labour base.”
In Te Tai Hauāuru, Labour has picked Soraya Peke-Mason, who, like Rurawhe, is part of the Rātana Church, which makes up a large and influential part of the electorate. In 2020, Ngarewa-Packer lost to Rurawhe by just 1053 votes.
“People will say Debbie is the favourite, but Soraya is a very, very strong candidate,” Jackson said.
Peke-Mason, while a new candidate, retained the same organising team as Rurawhe, Jackson said.
The National Party is also poised to enter the race for Te Tai Hauāuru, with Harete Hipango seeking to become its candidate - the party’s first in a Māori electorate since 2002 and with more expected.
Jackson said he supported National doing so.
“Whether we like it or not, there is a conservative Māori vote. They should have the choice.
“I think it shows respect for the kaupapa.”
There is also a chance for Te Pāti Māori in Tāmaki Makaurau, another closely fought seat in 2020 when Labour’s Peeni Henare pipped John Tamihere by just 927 votes.
Henare is intending to run there again, and this time will face Manurewa Marae CEO Natasha Kemp instead of Tamihere.
“It is a marginal seat if you go by those  numbers but, and no disrespect to Natasha Kemp, who I have worked with as well, but if he held off JT, I think he can do it again,” Jackson said.
Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said they were looking to do “a lot better than 2020″.
That was down to the work of their two current MPs and the fact the “red wave” of 2020 would not be repeated.
“We are looking at about four to five seats, we are pretty confident about that.”
Tamihere said they were also looking at announcing candidates in some of the general seats with high Māori populations.