THE CROWN is a fickle friend. Any political movement deemed to be colourful but inconsequential is generally permitted to go about its business unmolested. The Crown’s media, RNZ and TVNZ, may even “celebrate” its existence (presumably as proof of Democracy’s broad-minded acceptance of diversity). Should the movement’s leader/s demonstrate a newsworthy eccentricity, then they may even find themselves transformed into political celebrities. The moment a political movement makes the transition from inconsequentiality to significance, however, then all bets are off – especially if that significance is born of a decisive rise in its parliamentary representation.
Te Pāti Māori (TPM) is currently on the cusp of making that crucial transition from political novelty to political threat. The decision of the former MP for Waiariki, Labour’s Tamati Coffey, to step away from his parliamentary career at the end of the current term will be welcome news to TPM’s male co-leader, Rawiri Waititi, who took the seat from Coffey in 2020. There is a good chance, now, for Waititi to turn the Māori seat of Waiariki into TPM’s anchor electorate.
Certainly, without Rawiri’s 2020 victory in Waiariki, TPM’s female co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, would not have been able to occupy the additional seat to which TPM became entitled under MMP’s convoluted rules of representation. Ngarewa-Packer’s presence in Parliament alongside Waititi did a lot more than simply double the party’s representation. The two politicians have grown into a powerful double-act: their flair for performative politics (a.k.a showmanship) both complementing and augmenting the pair’s uncompromising radicalism.
Waititi’s signature black Stetson makes him instantly recognisable in a House of Representatives tending towards the sartorially beige. Couple this cowboy persona with his bravura transformation of the humble necktie into a symbol of colonial oppression, and Waititi’s political style is nothing if not memorable. But, there is substance beneath the style – as evidenced by the critical role the only-just-elected Waititi played in defusing the Waikeria prison riot of January 2021.
Ngarewa-Packer is a similar mixture of style and substance. Beneath the radical-biker-chic lies a tireless worker for whanau, hapu and iwi, and a better-than-average grasp of the intricacies of indigenous politics – both foreign and domestic. Even more than Waititi, Ngarewa-Packer understands the dual mandate of TPM.
The party’s purpose is not simply to put runs on the board for Māori by playing the Pakeha’s parliamentary game to the tangata whenua’s best advantage, but to translate TPM’s presence in the Crown’s most important political institution into a revolutionary transformation of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. Not since Harry Holland’s Labour Party first entered Parliament in 1919 has the Crown been confronted by such an uncompromising threat to the status quo.
And now, after a succession of polls documenting a four-fold increase in TPM’s share of the Party Vote, the Crown and its institutional defenders (what Māori nationalists describe, with considerable historical justification, as the “Settler State”) are having to come to terms with the alarming possibility that, post-October 14, TPM may have it in its gift the installation of a Labour-Green coalition government – on certain, non-negotiable conditions. What alarms the elite defenders of the status-quo the most, of course, is that they cannot be certain that Labour and the Greens will not accept those conditions.
Much will depend on how many, and which, Labour MPs survive the October cull. That, and the ultimate truth or falsity of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ post-Jacinda Ardern transformation from Woke Warrior to Waitakere Man (via the Hutt Valley). Certainly, it is difficult to accept the Press Gallery’s positioning of Hipkins on the right of Labour’s Caucus. In the words of political journalist Graham Adams:
Hipkins taking the lead role as “The Man Who Wasn’t There” in Labour’s election script — hastily rewritten to accommodate Ardern’s resignation in January — is preposterous. It beggars belief that anyone would fall for his double act in posing as both a political innocent and a simple Westie (“I’m Just Chippy from the Hutt”) but our mainstream journalists appear to have. Certainly they do not seem keen to point out that Hipkins is an ideologue who has been radically reshaping New Zealand education policy alongside Ardern for years, without any explicit electoral mandate to do so.
Exactly which of these two, very different, political personalities Hipkins inhabits may turn out to be critical. If innocent “Chippy From The Hutt” turns out to be the political confection Adams clearly believes it to be, and “Hipkins The Ideologue” is the real Chris, then a Labour-Green Coalition – critically supported by TPM from the cross-benches – may herald the beginning of something really big.
TPM’s most sensible political strategy would be to resolutely reject becoming part of a formal coalition agreement, and to demand instead Labour-Green support for a tranche of constitutionally transformative legislative initiatives. The strategic virtue of binding TPM’s support to the passage of “Tiriti-centric” legislation is that any failure on the part of Labour and the Greens to facilitate such a transformation would immediately place TPM’s agenda at the heart of the next election, which its abstention on the Opposition’s inevitable Vote of Confidence would precipitate.
A suicidal strategy? Only if the party adopting it is indissolubly wedded to the constitutional status-quo. But, very clearly, this is not the position of TPM – even if it turns out to be that of Labour and the Greens. Representation in the House of Representatives is very far from being the ultimate objective of TPM. Both Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer have made it clear that their presence in the Settlers’ parliament should be regarded as a purely transitory state-of-affairs. The parliament TPM envisages will have an upper house composed, 50:50, of Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti. In the lower house, meanwhile, Māori representation will be legally entrenched – just one of many “basic laws” passed to give effect to the foundational promises of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer have no more interest in remaining permanent members of “New Zealand’s” House of Representatives than did Lenin and Trotsky in remaining permanent members of Tsar Nicolas II’s “democratically-elected” Duma. Like the Bolsheviks, TPM is a party of revolutionaries – not reformists.
As this reality explodes, like a grenade, in the consciousness of the Crown and its creatures, the days of patronising TPM will come to an abrupt halt. Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer will no longer be treated as entertaining eccentrics – but as serious threats. More and more reasons for them to be hurled from the House in October will be presented to the electorate. All this is likely to communicate to Māori voters, however, is that the Crown is frightened of TPM. It is difficult to conceive of a more compelling reason for Māori voters to come out in record numbers and vote for Te Pāti Māori.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 20 March 2023.