13 May 2023

Meka Whaitiri rebellion hones parties' loyalties

From Focus on Politics, 10:00 am on 13 May 2023
Meka Whaitiri with background of Chris Hipkins and Te Pāti Māori lapel pin

Meka Whaitiri, who quit Labour to join Te Pāti Māori. She technically remains an independent MP in Parliament.  Photo: RNZ

"Maybe we just didn't know her like we thought we knew her" - Willie Jackson

Meka Whaiti's defection brings Labour's solid 65-strong majority down to 62, opening it up to accusations of disunity and instability. Lumping in Elizabeth Kerekere's resignation from the Greens, National's Christopher Luxon has been criticising the left as a 'coalition of chaos' - but the story on the right is not straightforward either. 

The shifting of the political sands - in the wake of two MPs quitting their parties - has drawn more definitive battle lines regardless, and Luxon's decision to rule out Te Pāti Māori has given prospective partner ACT more leverage for negotiations. 

Labour Ministers and MPs were caught off guard last week when long-time colleague Meka Whaitiri, the MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, defected to Te Pāti Māori. It means one fewer vote in Parliament and less funding for Labour, and prompted debate over whether she could even remain an MP under the party-hopping law. 

In the end, the Speaker Adrian Rurawhe ruled she would stay, technically as an independent. He says he's unable to release his communications with her; she could, but has not

Speaker Adrian Rurawhe gives the Greens’ Teanu Tuiono a warning for pushing the debate rules.

Speaker Adrian Rurawhe gives the Greens’ Teanu Tuiono a warning for pushing the debate rules. Photo: Louis Collins

So Whaitiri turned up to Parliament on Tuesday, flanked by the Pāti Māori co-leaders, and speaking in vague terms about her reasons. 

"Freedom. Liberation, as to talk on those issues that matter to our people and unashamedly without any censoring, and I'm going to do that for the people I represent going forward," she told reporters. 

Labour's MPs disputed her claims of being "shackled", and as the political week drew to a close were none the wiser about exactly why she had left their ranks. Many expressed disappointment at Whaitiri's no-contact approach, even after she'd gone public. 

The party's Māori caucus co-chair Willie Jackson, in particular, grew philosophical: "Maybe we just didn't know her like we thought we knew her," he said. "She was very close to us - I mean, very very close to us, and she chose not to reply to a number of messages. Maybe we saw things differently."

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Whaitiri's return was treated as a grand event by Te Pāti Māori with a rousing performance in the public gallery, a whakawātea which co-leader Rawiri Waititi later explained to reporters was intended to spiritually clear her path.  He said it was based in tikanga Māori.

Meka Whaitiri

Meka Whaitiri returns to Parliament flanked by Te Pāti Māori co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Labour's Māori MPs had just that morning complained Whaitiri was not engaging with their own tikanga process of reconciliation. The spectacle was also an interruption of a motion to congratulate King Charles on his coronation, and went ahead without the agreement of the other parties. ACT's David Seymour said the House had its own tikanga.

The Speaker promptly removed Waititi and fellow co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer for this breach of Parliamentary protocol. Waititi, on exiting, told reporters he did have permission from the other parties - but they disputed that, some saying they had referred him to the Speaker; others that he had not even asked, merely informed. 

Nevertheless, business continued inside the chamber. Whaitiri (after being told to wait for again interrupting the Coronation congratulations) sought to deliver a "personal explanation", though this soon resembled a maiden statement. Rurawhe again pulled her up, saying she had not outlined her reason and such explanations were not an excuse for speeches. 

Luxon the next day told Morning Report the whole display was "incredibly disrespectful", and confirmed unequivocally what he'd long hinted at: the gulf in their values meant National would not work with Te Pāti Māori post-election. He pointed to other personnel issues in Labour, and Elizabeth Kerekere's exit from the Green Party too, calling the three left-leaning parties a "coalition of chaos". 

Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon reconfirms his decision Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Within hours National had released a statement to the media and Luxon was again speaking to reporters at Parliament, underlining his reasoning - but he'd soured on the issue by early afternoon, telling reporters "I know you guys want to talk about that stuff... it's all about the New Zealand people who actually want to get on and get a government that's going to get things done for them".

Luxon also batted away questions over whether there was irony in criticising others for "grandstanding", all while knowing his rule-out move would likely seize the narrative for another day or two. His accompanying catchcry of "one person, one vote" also attracted criticism for "dog-whistling"

National's own turbulent and messy times are no distant memory either, though Luxon's deputy Nicola Willis argues their experience and subsequent unification gives them perspective on the matter. 

In any case, Ngarewa-Packer that night was not shy about criticising Labour when they refused to back her member's bill banning seabed mining at its first reading: "we cannot fathom for the life of us how Labour today is able to face themselves," she said, "don't come knocking on that door".

She had equal ire for National, who also voted the bill down: "I heard somebody to my right saying 'and this is why we don't support you... you remember that on 15 October, don't you dare ring me".

Having labelled the other MPs amateurs, she then cast Te Pāti Māori's votes - including Whaitiri's independent one - against her own bill in error, before correcting it. Chaotic, perhaps, but certainly not a united coalition. 

And the right has its own coalition clashes too. With Te Pāti Māori officially out of the picture, New Zealand First - having ruled out Labour - shapes up as a potential third wheel should it win enough votes come election time.

National's leader and MPs were coy about working with Winston Peters - but Seymour quickly dismissed the possibility, saying an apology and explanation of the New Zealand First Foundation funding fiasco would be needed for starters.

ACT party leader David Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour  Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National is almost certain to need ACT to form a government. If policy conflicts can be negotiated, Seymour will be wanting seats at the Cabinet table, in key portfolios. Ruling out Te Pāti Māori leaves National with fewer options - no matter how implausible - and gives ACT that little bit more leverage in a very narrow election contest.

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Editor Jane Patterson surveys the battle lines after Meka Whaitiri's defection and National's rejection of Te Pāti Māori.

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