The defection of Labour Minister Meka Whaitiri has been heralded by some as a stunning coup for Te Pāti Māori and a “courageous” step by the rebel MP. But is it really? The whole episode can also be viewed as rather farcical and shabby, reflecting very poorly on the integrity of both Whaitiri and the party welcoming her. This episode also illustrates just how much Te Pāti Maori has changed. The party once claimed to be all about the pursuit of “mana enhancing” relationships, but the contemporary version of the party is looking increasingly opportunistic.
The Māori Party was originally established when another Labour MP and minister, Tariana Turia, defected from Helen Clark’s Labour Government in 2005 over the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that dispute, Turia’s departure was a highly principled one, and carried out honourably.
Turia fought inside Labour to change its stance on the Foreshore and Seabed issue and, when she lost that battle, she took advice from a large array of supporters and resigned from her government. She also resigned from Parliament, as she understood her mandate as an MP came from being elected as a representative of the Labour Party. She soon won her seat back, gaining a mandate to establish the Māori Party – Te Pāti Māori.
In that case, the defecting MP did everything the right way, including giving her colleagues the respect of telling them that she was going and explaining why. She also was entirely upfront with the public.
There have been other notable waka jumpers who left their parties in a similar honourable fashion. Jim Anderton resigned from the Fourth Labour Government in the 1980s, Winston Peters departed from Jim Bolger’s National Government in the 1990s, and Hone Harawira left the Māori Party in 2011.
Of course, there are also examples of less honourable party hopping – from Alamein Kopu’s jump from the Alliance to set up her Wahine Māori party which propped up Jenny Shipley’s National Government, through to Brendan Horan leaving NZ First to set up his Independent Coalition. Such departures were about personal quarrels and vanities. Political philosophy and policy played no real part in their departures.
The Hollowness of Meka Whaitiri’s departure
In announcing her departure from the Labour Government on Wednesday, Meka Whaitiri failed to point to any substantive policy and philosophical differences with the party she had represented in Parliament for nearly ten years.
Likewise, yesterday Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer was unable to point to any particular reason for Whaitiri’s resignation and insisted Whaitiri had no “beef” with Labour.
Without Whaitiri being willing to provide any justification for her departure from Labour, speculation can be fairly drawn that it is simply about her own personal ambitions, gripes and vanities.
In particular, Whaitiri’s switch to Te Pāti Māori appears to be about her thwarted career ambitions. She was sacked by Jacinda Ardern in 2018 after a nasty altercation with one of her staff. Whaitiri never seemed to accept any fault in the dispute, displaying a lack of contrition and unwillingness to explain what happened. Her most notable statement following the dispute was that “In this country, we have a hierarchy; white men, white women, brown men, brown women, and sometimes brown women have to talk extra loud to be heard”.
Whaitiri was disgruntled when she did not make it back into Cabinet after the controversy, and even considered jumping ship to Te Pāti Māori in 2020. Subsequent reshuffles – especially the most recent ones under new prime minister Chris Hipkins – appear to have been the tipping point for Whaitiri, as she is said to have been aggrieved that other younger Māori MPs were promoted over her.
It also looked likely that Whaitiri would lose her ministerial position outside of Cabinet after the next election. If Labour is re-elected, the party will have less share of the vote and will have to divvy up ministerial positions with MPs from other minor parties, possibly including Te Pāti Māori. Other rising stars in Labour would also be likely to make up a refreshed Executive.
So, although Whaitiri has given up a ministerial position – and some have painted this as courageous – this was a case of her reading the writing on the wall. With this move, Whaitiri is now in a position to come back after the election as a more significant political figure, potentially even as a Cabinet Minister representing Te Pāti Māori.
Whaitiri and Te Pāti Māori are letting down the electorate
Whaitiri was elected in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti as a Labour MP, but by deciding she is now a Te Pāti Māori MP she has disregarded that mandate. The principled course of action would have been for Whaitiri to stay with the Labour Party until the election, and then seek re-election for another party. The alternative would be to resign from Parliament and commence her campaign as a candidate for Te Pāti Māori.
The proportionality of Parliament has been distorted – something that the Labour Government previously stated as a reason for bringing in the waka jumping law, which Whaitiri has been able to step around. It is clear that both Te Pāti Māori and Labour have done everything they can to prevent Whaitiri from being ejected from Parliament under the waka jumping law.
Labour wants to avoid souring their relationship with Te Pāti Māori because their path back to power after the election is likely to be predicated on that party’s support. Labour has obviously calculated that to invoke the waka-jumping legislation – which they have every right and ability to do – would not be in their interests, even if it would be the principled thing to do. It also appears that Labour and its Speaker have bent over backwards to prevent Whaitiri from inadvertently triggering the legislation.
The Integrity of Parliament is in question
Much of the public will view Whaitiri’s ability to stay in Parliament as a stitch-up. The decision by the Speaker appears nonsensical in a way that can only be explained by the self-interest of Labour and Te Pāti Māori.
Now the Speaker simply expects the public to trust him on this big issue of public interest, and won’t allow the public to have the details of the negotiations and communications with Whaitiri and Te Pāti Māori. But the lack of transparency means the public has no way of judging whether the Speaker’s decision was correct, or whether he has abused his position.
Although the Speaker and Te Pāti Māori are essentially claiming these issues are internal matters, there is a case to be made that all of the information should be released to the public. As RNZ’s Tim Watkin argues, “These are essentially public matters, not private ones.”
If Meka Whaitiri and Te Pāti Māori want to prove their integrity over what has occurred then they will release the letter that Whaitiri sent to the Speaker. This might quell the doubts about how Whaitiri managed to stay in Parliament despite her account to the media which appeared to trigger the party-hopping legislation.
Unfortunately, Te Pāti Māori and Whaitiri appear to be trying to escape any accountability over the matter by refusing to front up. For example, yesterday Tamihere denied the requests of journalists wanting the details of Whaitiri’s communications to the Speaker, saying: “we are not accountable to U we are accountable to the law”.
What happened to Te Pāti Māori’s “mana-enhancing” approach?
Traditionally Te Pāti Māori has made a lot of their commitment to dealing with others in a “mana-enhancing” way. But this episode has raised questions about whether this commitment has been ditched, given the lack of respect shown by Whaitiri and Te Pāti Māori to Whaitiri’s former colleagues.
RNZ’s Tim Watkin argues that this lack of respect has not just been to Labour, but to Parliament, the public, and to the voters of Ikaroa-Rāwhiti. As with other commentators, he is astounded that “Whaitiri did not have the decency to speak to her boss” before resigning.
Watkin suggests that Whaitiri and Te Pāti Māori have been most disrespectful to the voters: “After a carefully staged announcement she has not seen fit to explain herself to the public she serves. MPs are not just creatures of their electorates, but representatives of the people. And the people, quite frankly, have every right to feel kept in the dark. She is a servant of the public, yet we have so many unanswered questions.”
There is currently a lot of praise for the “masterstroke” of recruiting Whaitiri to Te Pāti Māori. Party president John Tamihere is being painted as a smart and ruthless operator who is making his party much more powerful.
And there might be more to come. Te Pāti Māori appears to be trying to attract other disgruntled and alienated politicians to their cause. Louisa Wall is rumoured to be about to announce she will stand for Te Pāti Māori against Labour in Manurewa. And today there is talk about renegade Green list MP Elizabeth Kerekere also jumping ship over her unhappiness with her party’s investigation into allegations of bullying.
The problem is that in welcoming in an array of politicians who have a personality-based conflict with their respective parties, Te Pāti Māori might become a life raft for mavericks, rather than politicians who share a coherent political philosophical basis. Tamihere himself joined Te Pāti Māori after his requests to re-join the Labour Party were rejected.
Therefore although this latest injection of momentum with Whaitiri’s defection comes at a perfect time for Te Pāti Māori, it all looks rather shabby. Yes, the party looks more powerful, and it will be able to leverage its apparent “king-maker” positioning, it might also find that it gains a reputation for being opportunistic and unprincipled.
Te Pāti Māori’s lack of mana
Whaitiri’s recruitment – possibly to be followed by the likes of Wall and Kerekere – comes during a parliamentary term in which Te Pāti Māori have decidedly raised the temperature in their allegations about the shortcomings of their political opponents. Increasingly, the Te Pāti Māori co-leaders are inclined to level allegations of racism and race to make their point.
This was, once again, very present in the justification for Whaitiri’s waka jumping, with allegations made that Labour had kept their Māori MPs in “shackles” as slaves. Tim Watkin argues that such language is “deeply loaded and insulting”. It’s especially galling to talk about Labour having imposed slavery on her, when she has been on a $250,000 salary, while her constituents “are suffering more directly as slaves to a global cost of living crisis, climate change and more.”
Ironically this is all reminiscent of Whaitiri’s win over then Te Pāti Māori co-leader Marama Fox in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti in 2017, which led Fox to exclaim on election night that Maori had made a big mistake in voting for the Labour candidates: “what I think the whānau have done is that they have gone back to the mother ship, they’ve gone back like a beaten wife to their abuser”.
Fox’s toxic allegations against the likes of Whaitiri are now being repeated by Whaitiri against her former Labour colleagues. Unfortunately, such toxic hyperbole is a sign of where Te Pāti Māori might be going. It’s hard to see how any of this is particularly “mana enhancing”.