Co-ordinated coat and vehicle combination ensures Labour candidate stands out

The candidate is easy to spot - Meka Whaitiri stands on the footpath in a red duffle coat next to a bright-red people-mover with Labour signage and her name splashed over it.

The voters, however, are harder to find.

It is lunch time and the southerly is yet to arrive in Masterton but there are few people about and, of those, even fewer are on the Maori roll.

Ms Whaitiri manages to net one man, only to be told that he hasn't voted since the 1960s. Every cloud has its silver lining: he has seven children. He offers to take pamphlets for them.


It is generally believed Ms Whaitiri will win the seat she is standing in after the death of her close friend and former boss, Parekura Horomia.

Labour is keen to show that it is not taking that for granted, however, so the front-bench MPs are spending as much time on the campaign trail with her as possible.

It is her first time campaigning in the Wairarapa, and Labour leader David Shearer travelled there to help out, pointing to a need to boost turnout.

Ms Whaitiri's time in the public service before she returned to head Ngati Kahungungu four years ago has given her a serious air. She is aware of that, so emphasises her links to her marae, and her own working-class background.

"It's funny, people have a perception of me as a corporate person, or public service. But if you're a member of my family, when you're back home you're on tea- towel duty. So can I identify with people? I've been doing that for 25 years."

Most of her family worked at the Whakatu freezing works before it closed in the 1980s, so she says she knows the pain of recession.

She also tells an amusing anecdote about the perils of the freezing works hiring most of an extended family, saying that when there was a tangi in the area, productivity at the works plummeted.

She is an engaging speaker but campaigning does not come naturally to her. At an arts centre for the disabled, she stands back before getting into the swing of it, admiring the works under way and high-fiving one of the aspiring artists.

She is yet to learn the art of standing at the leader's shoulder, in shot, while he is on television. So while Mr Shearer was talking to the camera, Ms Whaitiri was behind him with her back turned, inspecting pottery on the shelves before wandering off.

But she does have political gumption. At a marae-based training centre, she gets in a subtle dig at one of her rivals, the Mana Party's Te Hamua Nikora, who is a more recognisable face thanks to his time on Maori TV and has proved popular among the young.

"I don't sing, I don't tell jokes, I'm not an entertainer on the television," Ms Whaitiri says. "But my track record is I do the hard yards, I stay true to what our people want and I'm accessible."

She says she already knows the electorate fairly well.

"But in terms of seeing the hardship up close, such as being in people's homes, yesterday we went to a home with 12 adults and five kids in a three-bedroom home, surrounded by vacant state homes. That's a no-brainer."

She has a one-word answer when asked what the biggest issue is. "Jobs."

Horomia memory raw for contender

It has been almost two months since the death of Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP Parekura Horomia, and the Labour candidate in the resulting byelection, Meka Whaitiri, has described how hard it has been for her to move from grieving for her friend and former boss to campaigning to succeed him in the electorate.

Mr Horomia's memory is fresh on the campaign trail - at each of the powhiri Ms Whaitiri attended while campaigning in the Wairarapa yesterday, the speeches were as much about the late MP as a welcome to Ms Whaitiri. Speaking to kuia who once worked alongside Mr Horomia at Masterton's Rangimarie Marae, her voice broke as she spoke about her own links to Mr Horomia, who had given her her first job in the public service straight out of university when she was 21.

"Going from grieving to campaigning, it's been a bit of a struggle."