In just over two weeks voters will chose a victor in New Zealand's battle of the reluctant leaders.

Both Prime Minister Bill English and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern were asked to step up to the top jobs after the shock resignation of their respective leaders.

The situations each faced in assuming leadership however could not be more different. English, who took over a party consistently polling in the high 40s, seemingly happily ensconced as Finance Minister overseeing a buoyant economy he had helped steer, had everything to lose.

Ardern took over a Labour Party in crisis. It had slumped to the mid-20s in the polls, the only consistency it had shown around leadership was the regularity in which they were replaced. Ardern was the fifth Labour leader since Helen Clark resigned after being shown the door by voters in 2008.


Labour had nothing to lose, and unusually the reception to change this time round was positive across most political commentators and media.

In just two months, an election that was looking interesting only in the battle for second, and which parties would help National form a government, has morphed into a real contest between two very capable leaders, who bring very different skills to the role. Experience and predictability versus positivity and vision.

The dramatic change in the political landscape means even greater importance around the battle for the Māori seats. The rise of Labour has come by and large at the expense of its likely coalition partners, most notably the Greens and NZ First. Until recently Labour required both parties, and some, to form a government. Now a Labour, Greens and Māori Party arrangement could also be an option.

However, while this works in theory, in reality, it is nonsense and won't happen.
For Labour, the Māori Party have made an unhelpful contest of the Māori seats. Until 2005 when the Māori Party contested its first general election - ironically in response to the then Labour Government's Foreshore and Seabed legislation - Labour counted the seven Māori seats as their own.

The only exception to this dominance was in 1996 when NZ First (which then included now Māori Party president, Tuku Morgan) took out the Māori seats and went on to help National form the government. NZ First leader Winston Peters now wants a national referendum on whether there should even be Māori seats.

The Labour Māori caucus would not allow any deal with the Māori Party. Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell would likely expect to keep the Minister of Māori Development and Whanau Ora portfolios. This won't happen under a Labour Māori caucus led by Willie Jackson and Kelvin Davis.

The decline of both NZ First and National in the polls could also mean that the possible two or three seats of the Māori Party could be the difference in helping form another National-NZ First coalition government.

While Winston has scored plenty of political points bagging the Māori Party and its policies, most notably Whanau Ora, he is a more natural bedfellow with them than Act or the Greens.


This of course is all taniwha and talcum powder if the Māori Party don't win at least one electorate seat. The party, which is generally polling between one and two per cent in the polls, will likely need more than 1.7 per cent of the party vote to get a third MP if it can win at least one electorate seat.

Polls of three of the Maori seats carried out by Māori Television, have former New Plymouth District Councillor Howie Tamati ahead of Labour incumbent Adrian Rurawhe in Te Tai Hauāuru. However, Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox, contesting Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, and Te Tai Tonga candidate Mei Reedy-Taare are trailing Labour's Meka Whaitiri and Rino Tirikatene, which is unlikely to change on polling day.

There is not likely to be any surprises in the remaining seats. Despite the Kingitanga throwing its support behind its spokesman and former Tainui chairman Rahui Papa for the Maori Party in the Hauraki-Waikato seat, Nanaia Mahuta is likely to retain the seat she has held for more than 20 years.

The days when leaders could tell Māori voters who to vote for on election day are long gone - and good riddance. The same likely applies for Pacific peoples who, poll results suggest, have not flocked in behind the Māori Party despite the covenant formed between One Pacific and the Māori Party earlier this year.

With two weeks to go, the Waiariki electorate, held by the Maori Party since 2005, is going to be one to watch.

• Jon Stokes is a former Herald Maori-issues reporter and provides communications and strategy advice to a range of Maori and not-for-profit organisations.