The Māori Party want Rawiri Waititi. Can he win back Waiariki?

Ata mārie!

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For students of Māori politics, this is worth remembering: land reforms end even the best careers. “Toitū he kāinga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata.” The land remains when the people disappear. Criticism over Āpirana Ngata’s land reforms forced his resignation from the ministry in 1934, the end of an otherwise glittering career in law and politics. Matiu Rata walked away from Labour over compromises his leader, the so-so Bill Rowling, sought in Māori policy, including compromises over the Waitangi Tribunal’s power to return stolen land. The mere act of proposing changes to the Māori Land Act helped put Te Ururoa Flavell out of the job at the last election, and the so-called #ArdernConfiscation could make Flavell’s successor, Labour’s Tāmati Coffey, a one-termer.

Or so the Māori Party thinking goes. The party’s national executive is meeting next week and some of the big chiefs are keen to confirm Rawiri Waititi, an ex-Labour candidate, as their man in Waiariki in 2020. This is inspired. Waititi is a leader in Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, a ‘tūturu’ iwi at Waiariki’s edges, and a politician in the best tradition of Dame Tariana Turia. In other words, he left Labour on a principle. In his words, “mana motuhake”. There are very few theoretical candidates who could defeat a Labour incumbent – could Flavell do it again, or even Annette Sykes? – except Waititi, a bloke who learned at the foot of Dame June Mariu. Former MPs Tuku Morgan and Tau Henare were his neighbours. Former Labour Minister John Tamihere is his father-in-law.

This is reason enough to believe. But add the anger in Tauranga Moana and a good chance could become a sure thing. Can Waititi run as a champion for the Coast, from Matakana to Cape Runaway? Sure, but the next lesson for students of Māori politics: never bet against a Labour candidate. Tāmati isn’t any old first-termer. He’s a Labour first-termer, and he commands overwhelming support in Waiariki’s working class heartlands. Rotorua’s Western Heights, Whakatāne’s Awatapu and Kawerau came home in huge numbers for Labour and Tāmati. The Māori Party and Te Ururoa Flavell did best in the wealthier (but much smaller) Rotorua suburbs like Lynmore and Kawaha Point. 

The numbers are against the Māori Party can even if Waititi – assuming he agrees to stand – run on what Facebook activists are calling the #ArdernConfiscation, the daft hashtag for the dispute over the division of commercial redress between Pare Hauraki and Tauranga Moana. But the trouble, whether a magic candidate like Waititi stands or not, is the border disputes, property and asset divisions, and so-called confiscations mean very little at an election. The Māori Party never came close to winning the seven seats, even after an actual confiscation (i.e. the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the worst raupatu in more than a century).

It’s an exhausted truism, but homes, schools, and jobs and wages matter more.

This is why people come home for Labour. In mid-2017 Tāmati and Labour’s Māori caucus toured the electorates forgotten towns, promoting real world policies like the families package. Willie Jackson went all in on the Māori Party too, condemning their leadership for running a campaign to boycott Mike Hosking and ASB, the sponsor of Seven Sharp, instead of “[spending] more time on trying to get those banks to invest in our local communities.” The message was clear. Labour cares about your everyday lives. The Māori Party? They’re preoccupied with elite concerns.

From here, Tāmati’s s 2020 strategy is clear enough. Do the same as he did in 2017. Run on Labour’s universal policies. Homes, schools, jobs and wages. Even if Labour loses big in Tauranga Moana, it’s Tūhoe – in both the Valley and in Rotorua - and the iwi of the Te Arawa waka who decide the electorate. Even Ngāpuhi in Waiariki are almost double the size of Ngaiterangi, the largest iwi in Tauranga Moana. Ngāti Awa are larger too. Yes, Rawiri Waititi is the best candidate any party could hope for, but the numbers are against him. The Māori Party’s best booth in 2017 was Ngongotahā, Flavell’s kainga, but it’s unclear whether they would come out in big numbers again if a different candidate is standing.

But maybe this is the lesson for students of Māori politics: don’t make your bets two years out from polling day.

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