Recent polls have raised the possibility Te Pāti Māori could hold the balance of power after the 2023 election. What would it do with that power, and has it performed well enough to keep its place in Parliament? Michael Neilson looks at what the co-leaders think about National and Labour, what they think about Te Pāti Māori - and what it learned from working with National.
Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is not getting too excited yet about a recent poll that showed the party holding the balance of power: "The election is a long way off. One blooming pōhutukawa does not make for a great summer."
However, if the 1News Kantar Public poll results do come true on election night in 2023, Te Pāti Māori will find itself in a position it has never been in before: the kingmaker – the one who can decide who becomes Prime Minister and on what terms.
Most commentators are backing a return for the party, picking it will at least hold the Waiariki seat, and even get a boost in support in 2023. But the question of who they should - or even could - work with is more complicated.
Within the party, there is a lot of talk about whether returning to National would be too damaging, whether they would be swamped by Labour, or whether they should simply go on the cross-benches rather than be part of the Government.
Party vice-president and 2020 Tāmaki Makaurau candidate John Tamihere said a lesson from working with National was you can sit on the crossbench and "still have an impact".
"Just look at the Greens. Worldwide, the green movement has to be one of the most successful, by not being in government."
Sitting on the benches allowed members to "remain activists", he said, yet they were also able to convince mainstream parties to adopt their ideas.
"Our Māori movement, I'd like to think, would start to reflect that as well.
"Everyone says you can do more sitting around Cabinet than outside it. I don't subscribe to that view.
"The Māori Party has done well promoting policies it campaigned on, that Labour has adopted – Matariki, Māori Health Authority - we've done extraordinarily well in opposition."
Rather than asking whether Te Pāti Māori would work with National or Labour, Tamihere said those parties had to show they could work the other way around.
With Labour there was "healthy competition", which would only intensify come election campaign, but its MPs got along well with the Māori caucus.
"Some things this Government has done are outstanding, like the Omicron Māori funding package."
National had the most work to do, he said.
"We can only do business with those who want to do business with us. If they will continue the politics of Judith Collins and race-baiting remains to be seen."
The co-leaders are cautious about getting ahead of themselves, and reluctant to play into the traditional "Pākehā" left versus right political framework about who they could work with.
"We don't like left or right. We are straight up the guts Māori," Rawiri Waititi said.
Come election day their decision would be based on who was more committed to a "Tiriti-centric Aotearoa" and constitutional change.
"We get along with them all well, even Act, although they would have some work to do."
Waititi said while the previous partnership with National had "absolutely" hurt them, new politicians were there now.
National had an "opportunity" to show they were a more progressive party and considerate of the "wants and needs of tangata whenua", he said.
"We have never been in the kingmaker position so obviously there will be some bottom lines we'd be able to negotiate and that could put us in a powerful position, for our people."
Ngarewa-Packer said they preferred to talk about values, rather than left or right-wing, in terms of who they could work with.
"I think manaaki and tiaki, [similar to care, support], are closer to what we align with.
"We'd rather wait until election day and if we are in that position to work with someone, we will choose the party that best represents those values."
Ngarewa-Packer said they "mihi" to many of Labour's policies, those that uplifted tangata whenua, like the Māori Health Authority and He Puapua.
"Those things take time and courage. We have a lot of whanaunga in Labour, worked with many of them before. It is not a big ask working with [the Māori caucus], rather what the leadership allows them to do."
On National and their history together, Ngarewa-Packer said it was in the context of Labour renouncing the party and saying it could never work with them.
"Labour has never looked to reconcile. We've never been asked to work with Labour. When we [first] went with National it was endorsed by our people."
On the surface, come 2023 for many the choice would still seem obvious – voters in the Māori electorates have traditionally voted Labour and Te Pāti Māori paid a high price for its nine years of governing alongside the National Party.
In 2020 it was still bruised from those years and its own inner turmoil. Its support had ebbed in every election between 2008 and 2017 as Māori voters expressed their disdain over the arrangement at the ballot box.
It lost its final seat – Te Ururoa Flavell's Waiariki – and its place in Parliament in 2017 to a resurgent Labour Party and a strong campaign headed by Willie Jackson.
They launched their 2020 campaign with a completely new leadership team of Tamihere and Ngarewa-Packer as co-leaders. After Waititi reclaimed Waiariki he and Ngarewa-Packer, who came in on party vote count, entered Parliament as co-leaders.
They campaigned on regaining the lost independence as an "unashamedly Māori voice".
The other part of the campaign was to say they would not go into government with National.
Since their return to Parliament, the co-leaders continued to rule out National while it was under the leadership of Judith Collins, accusing her of race-baiting over comments on the Māori Health Authority and the He Puapua report, a report on a range of options the Government could take to meet the Draft Declaration of Indigenous Peoples' Rights.
However, since Christopher Luxon, whom many commentators compare to John Key, took over as leader and started down a path to repair the party's relationship with Māori, their tone has softened.
But while polling in previous elections had shown most Māori voters wanted Te Pāti Māori to side with Labour, the relationship between the two parties has also had its rocky moments.
In 2005, soon after the Te Pāti Māori was formed following Tariana Turia's split with Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed Act, then PM Helen Clark said it would be "the last cab off the rank" in any post-election talks. "I've got other options," she said.
In its bid to reclaim the Māori seats, in 2014 Labour campaigned on the line that "a vote for the Māori Party is a vote for National".
While National included the Te Pāti Māori in its governing arrangements three times despite not needing its votes to get a majority, Labour did not move to try to establish a relationship after the 2020 election.
On policies alone, the choice also seems clear. Te Pāti Māori is in Parliament to advocate unashamedly for Māori, a position at odds with traditional National and Act's "one law for all" positions.
They also have policies that appear typically left-wing, like redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor and strengthening environmental protections.
They've been at loggerheads with the right over such issues and more fundamental kaupapa Māori policies like the role of Te Tiriti and the Māori Health Authority, which Luxon continues to call "separatist".
Meanwhile, they've championed Labour wins such as the authority, changes to the curriculum and Māori-focused Omicron funding - although they have also had their fair share of disputes.
Key is to 'maintain independence'
Hone Harawira - who left the party over its deal with National and set up the Mana Party - said whatever the choice, maintaining independence was an important lesson from previously working with National.
Harawira left the party in 2011 after he felt they were too close to National and developing "anti-Māori" policies.
"Having that balance of power is a very delicate weapon. You have to manage it very delicately or you can end up slicing your own arm off. New Zealand First suffered, Act and the Greens suffered."
Maintaining independence was vital not just for the party but Māori in general, he said.
"Māori MPs in Labour and National, no disrespect, but they are driven in all votes in the House by party politics not what they know to be true as Māori."
Victoria University School of Māori Studies Associate Professor Maria Bargh said the party's values-based approach was how politics was done in the Māori world and a way to maintain independence from the major parties.
"They are trying to bring back those kaupapa planks on which the party was founded, indigenising Parliament."
This was seen in some of the "wins" for the party in opposition, which included Waititi's campaign to wear a hei tiki in the House, and consistent championing of Māori causes.
They may not be "hard policy", but those stances resonated with their voter base, she said, which was increasingly keen to champion and learn about te ao Māori and tikanga.
In forming a government and maintaining independence they could look into options like a memorandum of understanding, depending on what their goals were, she said.
Leader of Labour's Māori seats campaigns and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said there would be no issues working with Te Pāti Māori, despite "healthy competition" at the moment.
"Of course we could work with them, but this is one poll, and the election is 18 months away."
He said there was always a chance Te Pāti Māori would go with National given the nature of MMP.
"They are going to have to ask themselves though, would they really want to go with a party that says it would unwind so many of the things we have done? The MHA? History in schools?"
However, that did not mean the Labour Party would give any ground when it came to trying to reclaim all seven Māori seats.
Jackson said Labour's candidates were often written off but come back strongly on election day.
"We might have lost a seat [in 2020], but we didn't lose by much.
"We are always underestimated but run very strong ground games - just look at Adrian [Rurawhe, who has held Te Tai Hauāuru since 2014]. He was always written off but comes back."
Luxon declined an interview but said National was keeping its options open. Act has also said it would work with Te Pāti Māori but only as a "last resort".
The Greens already work closely with the party on many issues, as does Labour, despite at times heated rhetoric between them.
There have been no polls since the 2020 election on Māori seats, but a recent Hui Horizon Research poll found support for Labour from Māori voters had dropped to 37 per cent from 54 per cent in 2020.
This led National's most-senior Māori MP Dr Shane Reti to say it showed the Māori "love affair" with Labour was over.
However, at 11 per cent for Te Pāti Māori - the same as National - it had not really soaked up any of the shift. Nearly a quarter said they didn't know or would vote for a party outside Parliament.
Tamihere said Te Pāti Māori had always focused on the electorates rather than the party vote and was looking at running strong candidates in each of the seven Māori seats.
Few commentators believe Waititi won't again take Waiariki, meaning they'd likely return with the same if not more seats. Others spoken to believe Ngarewa-Packer has a good shot in Te Tai Hauāuru, which she lost to Labour's Adrian Rurawhe in 2020 by 1053 votes.
There is also a chance in Tāmaki Makaurau, another closely-fought seat in 2020 where Labour's Peeni Henare pipped Tamihere by just 927 votes.
Former political journalist and PR consultant Scott Campbell said the party had a shot in all seven seats.
"I would not have said that six months ago, but if polls continue this way, Māori go where we feel safe.
"It is what happened two elections ago when we went back to Labour in big numbers."
Although the co-leaders came out "a bit strong" with some statements in the beginning, they had softened and he felt they would attract some strong candidates for the seats.
Campbell said Labour would be a more natural fit, but the biggest influence they could have would be with National, which has the same number of Māori politicians in its entire caucus: two.
Meanwhile, Labour is stacked with senior Māori ministers.
"They'd bring a view of te ao Māori National does not have."
Either way, it was important for the party to be "at the table" if the opportunity arose, he said.
"If they want to pursue that dream of a Tiriti-centric Aotearoa, they need to be there."
Political commentator and former Labour Party activist Shane Te Pou also sees a strong return for the party, taking Waiariki again and potentially more.
Te Pou said the polls reinforced that Māori were strategic voters. It was not surprising many could be holding off in making their decisions.
Ngarewa-Packer was well known and had been very active in the area, even before becoming an MP, and through the pandemic had run checkpoints and even got involved in vaccinations.
However, Te Pou said Te Tai Hauāuru was a good example of the complexities of Māori seats, which cover vast areas and include long-standing rivalries.
"It is a seat within a seat," he said.
Rurawhe had a "strong ground game" and had good support around Rātana and Whanganui, while Ngarewa-Packer was stronger in the Taranaki area.
On who they would pick, Te Pou said a lot of Māori would see "Labour-Greens as a natural fit".
"It would also give the Labour Māori caucus more negotiating power, and could give the Government a chance to try a quite radical agenda. "
Former National treaty negotiations minister Chris Finlayson, however, thinks National and Te Pāti Māori could work well together.
"I'd mentioned to Rawiri this might happen - this latest poll had me smirking. I think Rawiri is a good guy and, from my experience, the Māori Party was always excellent."
While there was "work to do" on the part of the National to repair its relationship with Māori, Finlayson said key bridges could be built.
"Treaty settlements are part of it but the economic message, raising people up, National will be very strong on that leading up to the election and I think there are prospects there."
Waiting in the wings to spoil the party, however, is New Zealand First.
Having been in the position of kingmaker itself before - including in 2017 - former MP Shane Jones said nobody, especially Te Pāti Māori, should be getting too ahead of themselves.
"It all happens on the day. The Māori public, their concerns are driven by the hip pocket, not kapa haka. They are driven by disgust and fear of gangs, not cuddling the Mongrel Mob. Not these Treaty vanity projects."
But if the polls do stay close between the centre-right and centre-left groupings, and those pōhutukawa keep blooming for Te Pāti Māori, there could well be quite a contest to hail that cab off the rank.