Māori leaders and political experts say Labour minister Meka Whaitiri’s shock defection to Te Pāti Māori could be a turning point with wider ramifications for the next government as the minor party continues to poll in the “kingmaker” position.
Members of Labour’s Māori caucus were also pushing back strongly at suggestions Whaitiri’s waka jump was because Māori are being shackled within Labour, or that others might be about to follow suit.
Whaitiri, who’d been a Labour MP for Ikaroa Rāwhiti since 2013, blindsided colleagues yesterday by announcing she was leaving the party and would instead run for Te Pāti Māori at this year’s election.
She was a minister outside Cabinet with responsibilities for Customs, Veterans and leading the Hawke’s Bay cyclone recovery, and said the decision to cross the floor was “not an easy one”.
“Māori political activism is part of being Māori,” a visibly-emotional Whaitiri said from her iwi Ngāti Kahungunu’s Waipatu marae in Hastings.
“Today, I’m acknowledging whakapapa. I’m acknowledging my responsibility to it and it’s calling me home.”
Whaitiri has not responded to requests for comment about her decision from the Herald, and Te Pāti Māori has also declined media requests.
Speaker Adrian Rurawhe informed MPs on Wednesday afternoon that Whaitiri will be sitting as an independent MP and her defection will not trigger the waka-jumping legislation.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who was described as the architect of the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act 2018 while in government with Jacinda Ardern, said Whaitiri’s defection five months out from election “shows the true state the Labour Party is in.
“Worse still, the Labour leadership had no idea why and still don’t,” Peters said in a statement. “It is a deliberate, disgraceful deception played on the voters of New Zealand.”
Te Pati Māori president John Tamihere - himself a former Labour minister in Helen Clark’s cabinet- said it was “a magnificent day for Māori” and a turning point for the party.
“She is crossing the bridge to her own emancipation.”
Heather Te Au-Skipworth, the now former Māori Party candidate for the electorate, said it was a hard decision to stand aside, but: “When you’re given the key to unshackle your cousin, what do you do? You free her.”
Whaitiri made the announcement without informing her colleagues, least of all her boss, Chris Hipkins. The Prime Minister only found out after he had landed in London for King Charles III’s coronation this weekend.
Acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni was also blindsided and said she’d become aware of a “rumour” of Whaitiri’s defection at midday on Tuesday. After failed attempts to reach her, Sepuloni sent senior minister and East Coast MP Kiri Allan to Hawke’s Bay to speak with her “kanohi ki te kanohi” (face to face).
Allan said she asked Whaitiri if she was sure about her decision, while Whaitiri asked Allan if she wanted to join her in defecting to Te Pāti Māori.
It was for Whaitiri to explain why she had not spoken to Labour leadership about her decision before it was widely reported in news media, Allan said.
“There’s no changing her mind. What’s happened today is very clear.”
Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said Whaitiri had never mentioned any issues with the Government with him before. He said he was “very disappointed” Whaitiri was leaving and in the manner he was informed given they were good friends, but he wished her well.
She had been “very supportive” of the Government’s work and got along well with Hipkins, he said.
Jackson said it did not signify any wider dissatisfaction within the Māori caucus.
“We’re really comfortable with our position.”
Jackson said Ikaroa-Rāwhiti had a long history with Labour and Whaitiri’s defection by no means meant it was a guaranteed flip to Te Pāti Māori.
“We need to defend the seat. I’ve spoken to the chairs of Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu and they are very clear that in a whanaunga sense they support her... but they haven’t given any endorsement to her... Anyone who thinks that seat’s gone for Labour doesn’t know the history of the seat.”
Hawke’s Bay Māori have had a Labour MP for all but one three-year term since 1935 under the three electorate identities of Southern Māori (until 1996), Te Puku o Te Whenua (1996-1999) and Ikaroa-Rawhiti (since 1999).
Whaitiri was earlier stripped of her ministerial responsibilities in 2018 over a physical altercation with her press secretary and allegations of bullying.
After the 2020 general election, Whaitiri was reappointed as a minister but overlooked for promotion this year when Hipkins became Prime Minister, watching from the sidelines as Jackson, Allan, and Willow Jean Prime were shifted up the Labour rankings.
The public demotion in 2018, the Herald understands, opened the door for Te Pāti Māori to start talks with Whaitiri and others, while she was almost persuaded to switch teams for the 2020 general election.
Chair of Ngāti Kahungunu Incorporated Bayden Barber told the Herald the iwi would always support her as she was whanaunga (a relative), but votes were up to individual iwi members.
“She’ll have supporters of her as an MP. Others are probably more loyal to the party than the person.
“One would think with the experience as a minister, and with good relations in Ngāti Kahungunu and across Te Tairāwhiti, the cards would be stacked in her favour.”
Barber said people in the electorate were taking more notice of Te Pāti Māori and its potential influence in the next government, with polls putting it in the “kingmaker” position.
Political scientist Dr Lara Greaves said there were likely many competing factors in Whaitiri’s decision, including “being Māori within the Labour Party.
“These are all debates we have within te ao Māori, to what extent to be within mainstream organisations and be incrementalist, and be outside and push for transformation. A lot of Māori face that most days.”
Other factors could be her career progress, particularly with younger MPs being promoted faster than her.
Ikaroa-Rāwhiti was a generally safe Labour seat, but Greaves said contests in the Māori seats were heating up, with Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi expected to reclaim Waiariki and fellow co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer current favourite for Te Tai Hauāuru.