18 Nov 2023

Te Pāti Māori plans for future as it reflects on success in Māori seats

From Focus on Politics, 9:00 am on 18 November 2023
Focus on Politics: Debbie Ngawera-Packer in front of Te Pāti supporter signs

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says the party this term will be pushing to make Parliament more welcoming to Māori from day one.  Photo: RNZ

"It's an evolving movement, we should never stay the same" - Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

After its most successful election - taking all but one of the Māori seats - Te Pāti Māori is amping up for the next three years as "the only true opposition". 

It's a dramatic turnaround for a party dumped out of Parliament entirely in 2017, but co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer says that was a critical part of the party's growth. 

They are also looking ahead to their next generation of leaders, she says, and plans are afoot to shake Parliament up and normalise it for Māori. 

After the final vote count on 3 November - and the subsequent judicial recounts - Te Pāti Māori is confirmed to have won all but one of the Māori electorates. 

It's not just the wins that are impressive but from whom those seats were won, with senior Labour figures like Kelvin Davis, Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare ousted. 

Tākuta Ferris took Te Tai Tonga from Labour's Rino Tirikatene; along with its previous iteration the Southern Māori seat, the electorate has been held by a Tirikatene for all but 15 of 91 years. 

At 21, Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke wasn't even born when Hauraki-Waikato incumbent Nanaia Mahuta first entered Parliament in 1996. She told RNZ on election night the biggest achievement was getting a foot in the door - not just for herself, but for the kohanga reo generation

Nanaia Mahuta, Hana Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke and Meka Whaitiri

Nanaia Mahuta, Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, and Meka Whaitiri Photo: RNZ / Composite image

Ngarewa-Packer says they could see a growing frustration with the status quo, and people were able to identify with the party better than some of the more traditional positions. 

"Absolute respect to the traditions of the people and the mana that got them there but there was a sense of frustration that was fairly, like ... traditional seats and thinking were taken for granted maybe, moving away from some of the hardship that people were enduring, and some of the solutions that those on the ground had." 

That rejection of legacy for legacy's sake may have harmed Te Pāti Māori's chances in the one Māori electorate it didn't win: Ikaroa Rāwhiti. The incumbent, Labour's Meka Whaitiri, defected to Te Pāti Māori in May, with her cousin Heather Te Au-Skipworth stepping aside to allow that to happen - but lost the seat to Labour candidate Cushla Tangaere-Manuel by more than 2800 votes. 

Ngarewa-Packer said the loss was more about Whaitiri's competitor than her efforts. 

"Labour found a very capable candidate who would probably have been much more suited to be in Te Pāti Māori. I think it was more about who Labour put into the position versus would Heather have performed or done better ... what Meka did there is she closed the gap, she doubled the party vote, she did a whole lot of things in Ikaroa Rāwhiti and helped build an infrastructure in Ikaroa Rāwhiti that we never had." 

She said Whaitiri would continue supporting the party in the region to "bring through another candidate and to help continue, hold that new support that we have got ... it's just a term, I think next term will be very different".

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What was then called the Māori Party was ejected from Parliament in 2017 but returned in 2020 with two MPs after Rawiri Waititi secured the Waiariki seat. To go from that to their best ever result is remarkable. Ngarewa-Packer - who joined Waititi as a list MP before winning Te Tai Hauauru in 2023 - says that 2017 banishment was critical to their resurgence and continued evolution into the future.

"As painful as it is - and no different to giving birth, labour pains and watching our children go through teenagehood and all these sorts of things - it's a critical part of our growth in the fact that Māori never gave up on us. 

"No doubt the third generation of this movement - they may even change their name - will look quite different to what the Debbie and Rawiri phase [did] ... they are all dynamic politicians, leaders within their own communities of varying phases."

She reflects on the changes in Parliament the party has been part of, like no longer requiring men to wear ties, and allowing hei tiki and other taonga to be worn instead. 

"Now I go round and I look at the schools, and in Parliament, or business, nearly every funky politician or business leader or university grad or head boy or head girl are wearing funky sneakers, suits with taonga, and feeling confident in that because of how they're holding themselves."

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer in Te Tai Hauauru Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

The process to achieve that change was just one of several instances where Waititi was suspended or ordered out of the House - more than any other MP last term. Both co-leaders' outspokenness has come with its fair share of scrutiny and abuse, and Ngarewa-Packer told RNZ the party had used the period since election night to prepare and organise support for the four new MPs.

"We have one Māori that works in the whole of Parliamentary Services that assists politicians," she said. "A lot of the tension you can see around us at the moment is actually pushing back and saying 'this is what needs to happen, these are who need to be around, this is the tikanga that needs to be put in, this is where we do karakia' ... you'll see some of that from day one.

"You'll see some of those things that we've been planning and we'll put in place that will likely shake the place up but also normalise it for us ... a few things which I think will probably surprise media, which I'm looking forward to seeing your guys' reactions when the House rises." 

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Reporter Giles Dexter asks Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer to reflect on what the party did to win all but one of the Māori electorates and what it has planned for the 54th Parliament.

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