11 Sep 2023

The battle for Te Tai Hauāuru: Three wāhine MPs contest the seat

8:07 am on 11 September 2023
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, Soraya Peke-Mason, Harete Hipango

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, Soraya Peke-Mason, Harete Hipango Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

The battle for the Māori electorate of Te Tai Hauāuru is set to be tough, with three wāhine MPs vying for the seat.

The electorate is big: stretching from Kawhia in the north, to Porirua in the south and includes urban centres like Whanganui and Palmerston North.

With the incumbent Adrian Rurawhe opting to go list-only after being elected Parliament's Speaker, the battle for the electorate has been flung wide open.

Te Tai Hauāuru has long been represented by either Labour or the Māori Party - but this election, National is trying to flip that trend on its head.

Te Pāti Māori: Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is seen as the front-runner in the race for Te Tai Hauāuru.

Te Pāti Māori co-leader lost to Labour's Adrian Rurawhe by just over 1000 votes at the 2020 election.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Winning it in October would cement Te Pāti Māori's place in Parliament.

"In 2020, we had to prove that the movement was back and that was tough. We were ... literally sitting at the doorway of ICU, hoping that we could pump some life and the beat of the movement would come back. [Now] the vibrancy of the movement is unbelievably pulsing. "

Ngarewa-Packer told RNZ she had a different "vibe" to the other candidates and joked she was more relatable because of her "fits".

She was also the only candidate in the running for Te Tai Hauāuru to come from a tangata whenua party, she said.

"I'm not restrained by bigger parties. I'm not the value added or the plus one. We are it."

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer - Te Tai Hauāuru

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

Ngarewa-Packer grew up in a three-generational home in the small town of Patea, south of Taranaki.

She described the town, where most of her whānau are still based, as her "heart."

Reflecting on her upbringing, Ngarewa-Packer described Patea as a "strong-minded community that was very self-determined."

"It hit hard times in the 80s ... you sort of started to feel the cracks when families that had lived together had to go out and start looking for work and I guess a lot of our self-determination got pretty dispersed at that time.

"But actually, it is still a really hearty community that still dictates my life and notes when you don't turn up to the Marae or we're not at church."

Labour: Soraya Peke-Mason

Soraya Peke-Mason is no stranger to campaigning in Te Tai Hauāuru, having run for the electorate in 2011.

She lost to the Māori Party's Tariana Turia by a few thousand votes.

Soraya Peke-Mason

Soraya Peke-Mason Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Peke-Mason told RNZ she is feeling confident about her chances this time around.

"We're going to win. It's going to be close. But we are going to win and we're going to retain the seat," Peke-Mason told RNZ.

Peke-Mason has opted not to go on Labour's Party list, meaning if she loses the electorate she won't make it back to Parliament.

The Labour MP has long been involved in politics in her region, having spent 12 years on the Rangitikei District Council.

"I've got a history of being a hard worker, having integrity, and getting stuff done."

Soraya Peke-Mason - Te Tai Hauāuru

Soraya Peke-Mason - Te Tai Hauāuru Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Peke-Mason grew up in the Whanganui suburb of Castlecliff and described her upbringing as a "struggle."

"I know what it's like to be on struggle street because mum raised us in our early years, there was about six of us at that time, and mum was left as a widow ... so it was a struggle.

"She wanted to keep us together, which may have made that challenging, but she did it nevertheless."

Peke-Mason is a fourth-generation follower of the Rātana faith and lives at Rātana Pā, south of Whanganui.

"Most of my brothers and sisters and I were baptised, and mum and my grandmother and my great grandmother were staunch supporters of the movement. Here I am all these years later, ending up living there and feeling so blessed."

Peke-Mason served on the church's national body for more than a decade.

She goes into the campaign keenly aware of the almost centuries-old alliance between the Labour Party and the church.

"I have the support of the movement to be doing what I'm doing and also ... have a responsibility to uphold that allegiance that was put in place by T. W. Ratana and Michael Savage."

National: Harete Hipango

Harete Hipango was raised in Putiki, a small settlement at the mouth of the Whanganui River.

"Having been nourished and nurtured and raised at Putiki, it was imbued in Te Ao Māori, the world of our Māori values, and particularly in Putiki and Whanganui... So, this place is very special," Hipango told RNZ.

Harete Hipango

Harete Hipango Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Hipango was elected as the MP for Whanganui in 2017 but lost the seat to Labour's Steph Lewis three years later.

She had been selected to contest the seat for National again in October but withdrew to run instead for Te Tai Hauāuru.

Hipango was the first National Party Māori electorate candidate to be selected in more than two decades.

Since 2002, multiple National Party leaders have promised to abolish the Māori seats, but under Judith Collins' leadership in 2021 National committed to contest the Māori electorates once again. Christopher Luxon has maintained that position.

Harete Hipango - Te Tai Hauāuru

Harete Hipango - Te Tai Hauāuru Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Hipango told RNZ she lobbied National's board and party members to put forward candidates in the Māori seats and hinted at some resistance.

"Some people, understandably, if they don't have the level of insight or understanding can be uncertain ... and some people can feel threatened by that - the unknown.

"We know that we are small in numbers within the National Party ... we are growing, we are working on that. Where there is a will, there is a way ... so we are on our way."

A big focus of National's Te Tai Hauāuru campaign is building a base and increasing its party vote in the electorate.

But Hipango also wants to win - she suggested voters consider "where their vote will be of most value", implying they should consider recent polling, which suggests National and ACT could have the numbers to form a government.

"Is it going to a party that is not going to be in government? Is it going to a candidate who is going to be in government? Or is it going to the party and the candidate, alongside the party, who could advocate for the interests of our peoples' communities, who is likely to be in government?

"There is little to be gained sitting in the backbenches and I know that because I've sat there for two terms in opposition."

It would be an election night upset if National were to win Te Tai Hauāuru.

National has not held a Māori electorate since 1943 and its share of the party vote in the electorate in 2020 was just under 3 percent.

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