9 May 2023

Labour rejects Whaitiri's claims of not being heard

2:13 pm on 9 May 2023

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Labour's Māori MPs say Meka Whaitiri never raised concerns about not being listened to - and it doesn't match their own experience.

Hipkins says he is today underlining to all his MPs that he has an open door. The Māori caucus says they would have liked to clear the air with a tikanga Māori process, and although it's disappointing Whaitiri did not take them up on that offer it's ultimately a decision for her.

Whaitiri quit Labour to join te Pāti Māori ahead of the October election last week without informing any of her caucus colleagues or her boss - who only found out from media reports upon landing in the United Kingdom.

In her first full interview since the defection, she told 1News's Breakfast show she did not feel heard, and "I've now joined the party where I know my voice and those I represent will be heard".

Headed into a caucus meeting this morning, Hipkins said she had never approached him about her concerns.

"I'll certainly underscore that my door is always open," he said.

"I've gone back to look at whether she'd reached out to me at any point to raise issues and she hasn't, so obviously I'm disappointed that she feels that way. I mean, ultimately that's her call.

Chris Hipkins

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"I have a very open approach. MPs, ministers, anyone from the Labour team can contact me at any point and they routinely do and I intend to keep doing that."

He said he trusted his colleagues to get on and do their job, but would work through any issues where those arose. He said he did not feel the need to seek assurances from his remaining MPs that they would be sticking with the party.

"Ultimately we're a team and Meka wasn't raising any concerns."

Willie Jackson is the co-chair of Labour's Māori caucus, and said much the same about Labour's approach with its Māori MPs.

"She hasn't spoken to me ... she hasn't raised anything with me, and we haven't spoken so I only heard what you heard. All I know is our prime minister's door's open all the time, the Māori caucus have clear access to him and I'm surprised to hear that but that's her view."

Willie Jackson

Labour's Māori caucus co-chair Willie Jackson Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We're able to bring up issues all the time, so there's no problem with that.

"The reality is we can all be better listeners if that's what you're saying, but absolutely I feel heard."

The Māori caucus had extended an invitation via Nanaia Mahuta for Whaitiri to meet with them after her decision.

"We have reached out, it's a matter for Meka," Mahuta said.

"Right now the focus for the Māori caucus is on the issues that people are facing."

She said Whaitiri would have been heard by the leadership.

"Meka Whaitiri was an associate minister in the Labour caucus and if you're representing at that level, you are heard."

MP Shanan Halbert said as a relation he would continue to have a close relationship with Whaitiri outside of Parliament, but felt she should be having a conversation with senior colleagues.

"I've been in this place for two and a half years now. There's people, my seniors, who have served with Meka for a very long time and I suspect that she needs to have a conversation with them, but that's a matter for them.

No caption

Photo: Dom Thomas

"Meka is an aunty of mine so I would pay no disrespect to her but as Māori I think it's important that at some point we hohou te rongo, which is a reconciliation process. And no doubt that will happen."

"We did extend an invitation last week through Nanaia Mahuta to have a karakia together to clear the air. That's not something Meka wanted to do, so I respect that."

"I acknowledge her whānau today, and whānau is whānau."

Deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis suggested the invitation was a casual one, however.

"We don't have to meet her, we just wanted to get together and have a conversation about the events of the day, of the week.

"We wanted to have some sort of tikanga process where we could all just get together and move on, but she declined for her own reasons."

Labour Party MP Kelvin Davis

Kelvin Davis Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He also disputed her claims about not being heard.

"I think those are the sorts of excuses you come up with when you don't have a real excuse," he said. "Everyone has an opportunity to speak, so she had plenty, ample opportunities."

"In our Māori caucus we're having discussions all the time, everyone's open to speak."

Minister Peeni Henare, who took over Whaitiri's Veterans portfolio, did not feel her criticism was fair.

"I don't think that's fair at all. I've engaged regularly and consistently with Minist- well, Meka Whaitiri in the time that we served together as ministers across a whole heap of matters.

Peeni Henare

Peeni Henare Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We've already reached out to say that after the decision she made, we should come together just to clear the air, and there is a tikanga matter here that says 'kia whakanoa, kia whakawātea', but that was declined."

East Coast MP Kiri Allan said it was a time for reflecting on what reasons had brought MPs to Parliament, but she did feel heard.

"I've certainly reached out to her, particularly in the last couple of days knowing that she's coming into back to the environment. Yes, I think a lot of deep reflection I think is very fair amongst not just myself but probably all of us.

"I do feel very much heard in our team and in our caucus and I do feel very very strong on the wins that we have been able to achieve for te ao Māori as well as for New Zealand."

She said while not all conversations between colleagues were good ones, but Whaitiri's fellow Labour MPs had not sensed concern from her.

"We all probably reflect on our working situation ... the good, the bad, the indifferent - so I'm not going to pretend like they are free and frank yarns all of the time, amongst us all of the time. But that wasn't the sense - which I think is why many of us were shocked."

Kiri Allan

Kiri Allan Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Like you guys have beers at the pub on a Friday about whether or not you love your job, you know, we do the same."

"We're people like all the rest of you are but I certainly had no instinct or indication that she was likely to leave."

Hipkins and Jackson both said they would not block Whaitiri if she chose to raise a point of order in Parliament today.

All Labour's MPs who were questioned rejected any suggestion there were others looking to join te Pāti Māori, saying that was mere speculation.

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