31 Aug 2018

Meka Whaitiri: The story so far

1:42 pm on 31 August 2018

Low-profile Labour minister Meka Whaitiri shot into the headlines this week amid accusations of shoving a staff member during a heated argument.

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Meka Whaitiri at a select committee in 2017. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Ms Whaitiri has stepped aside as Customs Minister while the matter is investigated and from her associate roles in agriculture, forestry, local government and Crown/Māori Relations.

Sources have told RNZ that Ms Whaitiri was difficult to work with and pointed to a high staff turnover in her office.

Ms Whaitiri was born in Manutuke, in the Gisborne region, and went to school in Hastings.

Her working career began in shearing gangs on the East Coast and later at the freezing works in Whakatu, Hawke's Bay. She went on to complete a Masters in Education from Victoria University.

She has described her whānau as hardworking manual labourers and said she owed her dedication and work ethic to the values instilled in her from a young age.

She was hired in the Department of Labour by Parekura Horomia, who would later become a Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti and Māori Affairs Minister. She rose to deputy secretary in the department, and from 2007 to 2009 was a senior adviser to the Minister of Māori Affairs.

When Mr Horomia died in 2013 she was selected to stand for Labour in the by-election in his Ikaroa-Rāwhiti seat, which she won with a 1659 vote majority.

Announcing her decision to stand she said she wanted to improve housing, health services and job opportunities.

"I was raised in a whānau of freezing workers and I began my working life in the Whakatu Freezing Works. I can see the struggle our people are engaged in on the day-to-day and I want to seek selection as the Ikaroa-Rawhiti candidate to continue the legacy of service that has been left in this electorate.

"The reason for seeking selection is simple really: our rangatahi need pathways to pursue, our people need jobs, warm homes, greater access to public health services and we need to be thinking strategically as we push into the post-settlement era."

Ms Whaitiri was a Treaty negotiator for her Rongowhakaata iwi and spent spent four years, from 2009 to 2013, as chief executive of Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporated, the organisation which represents the third largest iwi.

After being officially sworn in as minister last year she said she thought of Mr Horomia whose legacy she had worked hard to honour. "I hope he thinks the girl he met at the freezing works all those years ago is doing okay at following his instructions to "hold the line",' she wrote for Hawke's Bay Today.

As a junior minister, she has kept a relatively low profile and most issues that have come across her desk have been handled without incident.

In March, she shot down a proposal to ban rodeos, but soon after unveiled a raft of new regulations to strengthen the animal welfare system.

Most recently, Ms Whaitiri scrapped the need for people to fill out a departure card when leaving the country.

As MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, Ms Whaitiri also played a role in the response to flash flooding on the East Coast in June, accompanying Civil Defence on an aerial survey.

Ms Whaitiri, 53, has two sons. Her mother, Mei Whaitiri, was the model for Napier's Pania of the Reef statue as a student in the 1950s.