The Prime Minister's success at the recent Waitangi celebrations underlines just how important the Maori electorates have become for any party looking to win government.

Attendance at Waitangi was part of my job description during my long stint as Labour Party president and this was a mixed blessing. Though it was always a good day out, almost every year there was a protest or some kind of stunt which would dominate the media and turn the whole experience into one you'd rather forget.

After 2009, I resolved to forever give the Waitangi ceremonies a miss, though an invitation to Shane and Dot Jones's party this year was a temptation to return.

Reports from friends who made the trip tell me I made a mistake and missed out on something special.


I'll admit that when I heard of Jacinda's decision to spend five days at Waitangi, I thought she had been badly advised, and was inviting disaster.

As one with long years of experience, I would have warned Jacinda that any political leader attending Waitangi is walking on eggshells and just about any trivial sideshow can morph into a media calamity.

In the event, the whole exercise was well planned and turned into a triumph, extending the already long honeymoon the new Government is enjoying, and demonstrating again that our Prime Minister has the common touch and a self-deprecating aura of warmth that for most is captivating.

She is also a very astute politician and she will be aware her party's success in winning all of the Maori electorates and eliminating the Maori Party from parliament in the September election was a key factor in the defeat of the National-led government last year.

I noticed on election night the result that seemed to be the biggest surprise was Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell's loss of the Waiariki electorate to Labour's Tamati Coffey.

This outcome defied expectations, as a Maori TV poll published barely a fortnight before election day had Flavell 20 points ahead of Coffey.

For Maori commentator Stacey Morrison, who sat beside me on the TV1 set, this was clearly an unwelcome surprise and we checked to see that the majority of the booths in Waiariki had been counted before she could accept the outcome.

In the previous election, Flavell's success in this electorate plus 32,000 party votes meant the Maori also had a list MP (Marama Fox) and could add two crucial votes to the National Party's tally.

I'd be pretty sure National Party campaign manager Steven Joyce fully expected something similar to occur in 2017 as it seemed likely that Howie Tamati, the former Rugby League star who gave up a seat on the New Plymouth District council to run for the Maori Party in Te Tai Hauāuru, would also win.

A similar Maori Television poll published less than a month before election day had Tamati ahead of Labour's Adrian Rurawhe by 13 points; a seemingly decisive lead.


My guess is Joyce had been looking at internal National Party polling in these two seats which were telling the same tale as the published polls and this is a possible reason for National not trying to help its Maori Party ally with fundraising as it had in the past.

Trusting landline-based polls in Maori electorates is a mistake which was driven home to me many years ago.

A month before the 1999 election I saw polls which showed Labour candidates well behind the then New Zealand First Party incumbents in three Maori seats, and I took action by heavily increasing the advertising spend in those seats.

In the event, the three Labour candidates won their seats at a canter and I never again trusted polls in Maori electorates.

The only possible explanation for this repeated failure of normally reliable research methods is that so few Maori households have landlines that pollsters who use this technique are only talking to a handful of the relatively well-off.

Although the Maori Party's defeat owed a great deal to the National Party's failure to help its key support party, the Labour Party understood exactly how important it was to win all the Maori seats and designed a flawless campaign.

One of Andrew Little's most successful moves as party leader was to recruit Willie Jackson as a Labour list candidate and Maori campaign manager.

Jackson spent a term in Parliament as an Alliance MP 15 years ago and his experience in trade unions, broadcasting, urban Maori administration and politics means he knows everyone who counts.

Organising campaigns in Maori electorates has been likened to herding cats, but Willie Jackson did just that and the ministerial role he now holds is a well-earned reward for a job very well done.