New Zealand’s next kingmakers: who are the Maori? | New Zealand

Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer sit down laughing. He holds a glass with a big finger of whiskey, she a handful of cheese sticks. When asked if they celebrate, Waititi laughs: no. If anything, they say, it’s the small victory of spending a Wednesday in parliament. Their desk is adorned with a striking red and black paint job. “We will not be silenced,” it read. “We will not be assimilated.

The couple seem in good spirits, and with good reason. The party experienced a rather drastic change of fortune. In 2017, after three terms in government in a confidence and supply coalition with the National, he failed to win a seat or send a representative to parliament a result that most commentators interpret as voters’ punishment for years of compromising with a centre-right government. It is a fate from which small parties rarely recover. “All the political pundits, all the political algorithms said we were missing,” Waititi says. Unexpectedly, the party clawed back a seat after a wave of Labor victories in the last election, with a new leadership promising an unabashed voice for Maori. When asked about their greatest accomplishments from the last term, their comeback is the first thing they cite.

Now Te Pati Māori has more than survival in mind. Election year is approaching and it looks increasingly likely that the party could hold the balance of power in New Zealand’s next government. At least four recent polls have placed the party as the kingmaker in a closely matched contest between New Zealand’s left and right. The upcoming election could give Te Pati Māori a winning hand, but it’s not yet clear how they would like to play it.

New Zealand Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi uses a tie to simulate a noose during his maiden speech in Wellington in February 2021. Photo: TVNZ/AFP/Getty Images

In parliament, both men have shown a knack for making headlines and a lack of interest in compromise, whether over dress, parliamentary conduct or politics. After her election in 2020, Waititi refused to take the traditional oath to the Queen without first pledging allegiance to the Treaty of Waitangi. His refusal to wear a tie – which he dubbed a “colonial noose” – saw him kicked out of the house for breaking dress codes. In another brief controversy, the Act party leader questioned whether Waititi’s Air Jordan sneakers met ‘professional dress’ requirements, and the president said that growing up he thought they were the dress code drug traffickers. The pair were again kicked out after Waititi stood up to call the opposition’s rhetoric racist; invited to sit by the president, he and Ngarewa-Packer performed a haka.

Ngarewa-Packer and Waititi see these conflicts not as incidental to their presence in parliament, but as central to their mission, listing them among their main achievements. “The tie is not a tie,” says Waititi. “It’s about cultural representation, cultural identity.” Ngarewa-Packer nods. “It took a long time to be able to affirm our own path in this house,” she says. The conflicts also serve to illustrate a deeper challenge – a party both constantly at odds with the status quo of the colonial parliament and a component of its apparatus.

The challenge of moving from protest party to government

“I think the chances of Te Pati Māori being a significant player in what I think will be a close election are high,” said Maori political commentator Shane te Pou. The question of what they do with it, he says, is the difficulty: it is much more difficult to maintain an oppositional identity as a gadfly on the state courier, after becoming the courier.

“You get things done by either being in a coalition or in government. You don’t get things done by being a protest wing of parliament,” Te Pou says. “You can be a protester, but at the end of the day you want races on the board.”

Te Pati Māori co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.
Te Pati Māori may be in his strongest position yet to win political concessions after the next election. Photography: Kiriana Eparaima-Hautapu

So far being on the wing of the protest has pleased the party, which has gone out of its way to loudly decry policy where they believe it is failing Maori – sometimes to the wrath of other parties. When the government enacted Covid policies that experts said would lead to higher infection rates, Waititi called it “squid games for Maori”, referring to the popular Korean TV show where contestants indebted are killed for the pleasure of watching the elites. “We have been really – I can’t think of a better term, but – shameless in every policy framework and legislative space that we can,” says Ngarewa Packer. “We will continue to put the government to the test. And on the other side, we also turn to our right and left and have to oppose the task.

Moving from this position of opposition to that of coalition governance – a position usually marked by compromises and concessions – could be a challenge for the party and its base.

“It would require a total change in their approach to parliamentary politics,” says Ben Thomas, political commentator and former national government adviser to Chris Finlayson, minister for treaty negotiations. “If you want to be an all Kaupapa-Maori political party, how do you work with the colonial government?” he says. “It’s always going to be difficult to reconcile.”

The next election could put the party leadership in its strongest position to win political concessions. But they have a much larger goal in mind: a total reform of New Zealand’s constitutional framework. Their top priority is a ‘Te Tiriti-centred Aotearoa’ – changing New Zealand’s system-wide governance to be based on the Treaty of Waitangi, which guarantees Maori ‘the full exercise of their chiefdom” over their lands and resources. Waititi said the current form of “one person, one vote” democracy does not reflect the core of the treaty, which guarantees self-determination for Maori. The party has its political platform, Waititi and Ngarewa Packer point out – scrapping GST on food, opposing deep sea drilling, increasing funding for the Maori Health Authority, ending homelessness for Maori . But Waititi also seems to view these policies as small fry.

“Politics come and go, problems come and go. Governments come and go. It’s like the haka: ka mate ka mateka ora, ka ora [it is life; it is death],” he says.

“Just like the waves that hit the shores, they come in and out all the time. What doesn’t change is parliament. Parliament doesn’t change, and that’s what sustains the systemic racism that continually places our people in the background. So until that changes, what are the policies?”

Joseph K. Bennett