Maori Party MP Rahui Katene started strong but was soon paddling against the tide, and finished the Te Tai Tonga debate looking frazzled and beaten.

Meanwhile Mana candidate Clinton Dearlove was full of beginner nerves, but soon found his feet to deliver a message with emphatic authority, along with an Obama-esque smile.

The first of seven Maori electorate debates kicked off tonight on Native Affairs with a look at the Tai Tonga candidates Katene, Dearlove, Dora Langsbury (Greens), and Rino Tirikatene (Labour).

In 2008 Katene won the electorate, which stretches from Wellington over the South Island, with a 1049 majority, but she is seen as vulnerable to a strong challenge from Tirikatene.


Katene started full of confidence, stressing the gains the Maori Party has made in partnership with National - "being at the Cabinet table is everything" - but that was not the message the predominantly Labour crowd wanted to hear.

Soon every sentence that started with "The Maori Party", or with generic funding figures to help generic policies, was met with a groan or crowd heckling. Katene struggled to maintain her cool, and was easily drowned out.

And though he had home-court advantage, Tirikatene's soft voice hardly lent him an impression of an aspiring politician with fire in the belly, nor did he come across as a composed intellectual.

When asked about how to best keep Maori in schools or training, he said it was a very broad question and "we just want to do the best that we can".
Enter Hurricane Dearlove.

He swept away the weak answer from Tirikatene and railed against the way Maori were being sidelined in their own schools.

"There are not enough teachers, they're under-resourced ... our language is not validated ... we need more support networks," the school teacher said with eyes full of purpose.

"We know because we have been in the classroom, we know the difficulties facing our children."

When the Labour-strong crowd tried to disrupt him with comments like, "How're you going to do that?", he unleashed an enormous smile that lit up the room.

"For years we've had National and Labour in power and not a thing has happened," he said to much applause.

Katene tried to regain the intiative by stressing that her party was the only one for Maori, but Dearlove disarmed her by conceding that Mana was a party "for all people"; for example, while the Maori Party support iwi buying into state assets, Mana is vehemently opposed because everyone "already owns them".

His strength of delivery was reinforced next to the calm demeanor of Green candidate Dora Langsbury, who stressed Green policy whenever possible.

Dearlove drew loud applause playing the discrimination card on a question about a diabetes programme that had been cut.

"We need a culture in our hospitals where it's safe for our people to go to, not an endemic racist system."

Tirikatene followed in the hurricane's wake, initially saying he would refund the programme, and then watering down his statement to empty platitudes.

"Labour is really focusing on those key isses. If the need is there and it needs to be redone, we can re-do it."

Leaving him failing, like Katene, to leave much of an impression.