Since entering parliament in 2020, she’s made an unapologetically Māori mark on Aotearoa’s political landscape. Now Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is the front-runner in her electorate, co-leading an invigorated party.
It was an unmistakable break from the stuffy traditions of parliamentary attire when Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa Packer was sworn in as an MP in 2020. Draped across her shoulders was a korowai invoking the white feathers of the pacifist Parihaka settlement, and perched on her head a jaunty top hat, a nod to those worn by kuia ahead of the signing of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This was a vivid expression of a new kind of politics – and it was rather miraculous she was there at all.
There were just 1,053 votes between Ngarewa-Packer and Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe in the race for the Māori seat of Te Tai Hauāuru in the last election. While Rurawhe won the electorate, on the opposite coast, Ngarewa-Packer’s party-mate Rawiri Waititi took the seat of Waiariki and, as the party gained more than 1% of the party vote, was able to bring Ngarewa-Packer with him as a list MP. Over the last three years in parliament, and thanks to shrewd use of social media, community engagement and symbolic spectacle, the party of two has managed an outsized presence in the local political landscape.
It’s for this reason and more that this time around, Ngarewa-Packer’s chances of flipping the seat from Labour are looking far greater. With Rurawhe, now parliament’s speaker, going list only, she’s the most senior MP vying for the seat – and running against two comparatively low-profile candidates: Labour’s Soraya Peke-Mason, who contested the seat unsuccessfully in 2011, and Harete Hipango, the first National candidate standing for a Māori seat since 2002. It’s not unprecedented either; the seat was held by Te Pāti Māori from 2005 to 2014. Even Labour’s Māori strategist Willie Jackson has described her as the front-runner in the contest.
There’s a flash of dark rectangular sunglasses, a moko kauae, and that recognisable sleek jet-black ponytail. “It’s the other door,” Ngarewa-Packer calls out from her rolled down car window just before nipping into the driveway of a weather-worn hall. I’ve made the five-hour drive from Tāmaki Makaurau to the South Taranaki town of Hāwera, and she’s squeezing me in between commitments at a tangihanga at her marae, Pariroa Pā, and multiple incoming phone calls (her ringtone: Dr Dre’s ‘Still D.R.E.’).
Within seconds, Ngarewa-Packer is springing from the driver’s seat of the white four wheel drive that’s been turned ombre by sprays of mud. She’s wearing a pre-owned taupe motorcycle jacket, chunky Dr Martens and the tricolours of the tino rangatiratanga flag in manicure form – the epitome of the unique brand of Māori-fied sartorial flair she’s become known for since entering parliament. With a clatter of keys in hand, she shimmies the door to her electorate office. “We love that no one really knows we’re here, it’s our little secret,” she says. “But not everybody appreciates our uniqueness.”
Hāwera, with a population of just over 10,000, is at the central coastal point of this expansive electorate, which stretches from Putāruru in southern Waikato to Porirua, north of Wellington. It encompasses nearly a quarter of the North Island, and holds the most diverse iwi makeup of any of the seven Māori electorates. Beyond a lone hoarding on the grassy neighbouring section imploring voters to vote Ngarewa-Packer for Te Tai Hauāuru, there are few visual cues that this is a candidate office. Partially that’s because – as the mud splattered on Ngarewa-Packer’s car suggests – an electorate this dispersed demands a mobile campaign.
After the dramatic and tearful collapse of Te Pāti Māori in the 2017 election, few predicted the party would make a return to parliament in 2020. And Te Pāti Māori’s strong position going into this election is somewhat remarkable, given the trajectory of the party over the last two decades.
Te Pāti Māori, or The Māori Party as it was then known, was founded in 2004 by Tariana Turia after she resigned as a minister from the Labour Party over the foreshore and seabed controversy. In 2017, after three terms in government with National, Te Pāti Māori failed to win a single seat – instead, they all went to Labour. That sudden changing tide across the Māori seats is often attributed to discontent among Māori voters with the ongoing arrangement between National and Te Pāti Māori, and within the following 12 months, the party’s senior co-leaders and president all resigned.
Since 2020, the party has undergone something of a reinvention under its two new leaders, Ngarewa-Packer and Waititi, along with new party presidents Che Wilson and then John Tamihere. Going into the 2023 election, Te Pati Māori has made a point of distinguishing itself from its earlier iterations – ruling out working with National and more recently apologising to migrant and refugee communities for the “harmful” immigration policy published by the party in the lead-up to the last election.
Three years in parliament have defined the uniquely Māori style of politics Ngarewa-Packer and Waititi bring, a style that has had an impact not only on the narratives and debates in the house, but on the way it looks and feels. “We can’t be who we were in the last era,” Ngarewa-Packer says. “There was a lot of time spent trying to reidentify ourselves, reposition ourselves; most importantly, to remind ourselves why a Māori movement is really important.”
What’s immediately striking when you speak to Ngarewa-Packer is how quickly she talks. Sentences are relayed strikingly fast. She regularly begins new sentences before finishing the last, abruptly leaping from one thought to another as her mind finds another connection – but always looping back to the central point. You can almost hear the flickering thoughts racing through her mind.
Anecdotes and memories, often already quite remarkable in themselves, will be dotted with casual mentions of the time she studied at Stanford University, or that she’s a volunteer spin cycle instructor at the community gym that adjoins her office, or that she’s currently working on her PhD about her iwi Covid-19 response, or that she completed an MBA at the University of Tasmania, or that she owned a pizza delivery business as a single mum in her early 20s. In 2004, she helped rally a Taranaki contingent to join the foreshore and seabed hīkoi as it made its way to Wellington. Before that she spent years working in marketing for Telecom and TVNZ in Auckland. Now in her mid 50s, she’s a mother of three, and a grandmother of nine, and has been the chief executive of her Ngāti Ruanui rūnanga for over a decade and spent years lobbying against seabed mining. In 2007, she had a stint in local politics as deputy mayor of South Taranaki alongside Pākehā farmer Ross Dunlop – “we had nothing in common at all: [Ross] was an intergenerational farmer and I’m intergenerational loss of land,” she laughs. “But he was really, really brilliant.” Oh, and she can surf. Ngarewa-Packer is an overachiever, and much to her own delight, she’s exceptionally hard for others to pigeonhole.
Just 20 minutes south along the coast from Ngarewa-Packer’s Hāwera office is Pātea, the small town where she was born and raised. Both her parents, Colleen (an Irish woman whom Ngarewa-Packer describes as “the best Tangata Tiriti woman in the world”) and Hemi, still live in the town and she lives just outside with her husband Neil in an intergenerational home. The coastal town remains the centre of her universe.
Two events in Pātea, just over a century apart, have profoundly informed her politics. Behind the korowai and top hat stretches Ngarewa-Packer’s poignant and powerful whakapapa.
In 1869 her great-grandfather Hohepa Ngarewa Tumahuki, then 16, was one of 74 men of the Pakakohi iwi who were sent as prisoners to Dunedin during the Taranaki muru raupatu (land confiscations). Eighteen died during their exile, but Hohepa survived and eventually returned to Parihaka, the only survivor from Ngarewa-Packer’s whānau to return home. A decade later, the whānau was persecuted again for passively resisting land confiscations at Parihaka. “Probably the worst part about the displacement is we have no stories about ourselves,” she says. “We don’t have stories about how and who and what and why we are like this.”
Slightly more than a century later, on September 3, 1982, the Pātea Freezing Company closed after almost 100 years of operation. The works had been the economic basis of the thriving rural town, including Ngarewa-Packer’s whānau, for decades, and the impact was immediate. Without employment to keep them there, hundreds left Pātea in search of work. Those who had no choice but to remain struggled to find jobs and within weeks, Ngarewa-Packer recalls, “banks shut down, schools shut down, families shut down”. During the collapse, Ngarewa-Packer’s dad was abruptly unemployed and she moved home from boarding school at New Plymouth Girls’ High. It was the “second wave of fear” within her whānau following the muru raupatu over a century earlier. “I know that everyone deserves to live in peace and dignity and that we’ll have to take some hits to get there – but I’ll never have to take the degree of hits that my ancestors did,” she says.
But out of that economic and social rubble also came a defiantly Māori pop hit: Pātea Māori Club’s ‘Poi E’. Written by Māori linguist Ngoi Pewhairangi and scored by Dalvanius Prime, it’s a cultural phenomenon that Ngarewa-Packer regularly refers to. Since hearing it for the first time in 1984 as a teenager, it’s forever been a source of pride. “I knew behind the scenes what was going on – I knew that some of them had moved away and they were coming back for practice and that they were starting new lives with new jobs – I knew what it took for them to be together,” she says. “It was tough times, but then it was just pure frickin’ magic.”
“My whole purpose for going into politics was because I was sick and tired of our people on the ground being ignored. They have already proved themselves time after time that they can actually look after themselves if you can just get out of the way and resource them,” she says. “I’m living proof of that, ‘Poi E’ is living proof of that.”
Beyond the long-lasting trauma fostered by this history, Ngarewa-Packer says these moments have entrenched a deep sense of what is right and what is wrong in her whānau. “All of that could have made you extremely troubled, quite screwed up really,” she says. “But I was really lucky when it came to the way that our whānau reacted – they absolutely encouraged aroha and forgiveness, forgiveness being the biggest thing you could ever do in life.”
Shortly before needing to jump onto a Zoom interview for Whakaata Māori, Ngarewa-Packer proudly unfurls a black blazer that she’s upcycled from a local op shop. Both sleeves of the jacket have been sliced and reshaped, and a tiny tino rangatiratanga patch added too.
“Don’t look too close,” she says while holding up the sleeves. Impressively, in between all her other responsibilities, she finds the time for sewing and her “real love”, op-shopping. Animatedly, she rattles off a directory of secondhand shops along with notes on which spots have the best deals and which seem to end up with the cream of the crop when it comes to designer labels (both Hāwera and Te Kuiti get special mention). Recent acquisitions include a $13 men’s tuxedo suit in Te Awamutu, a pair of jeans converted into a skirt, and a men’s jacket transformed into a skirt. “I drag Rawiri in too, I don’t know if you’ve noticed Rawiri’s fashion looks better now?,” she says, laughing. “I truly believe that everyone has their own style.”
At times – and often in reference to their symbolic displays of politics through choice of hats or neckwear or sneakers or song – critics have accused the party of being more about style than substance, performative rather than actually affecting meaningful legislative change. In response, the pair often point to progress made around Māori wards, Matariki, Oranga Tamariki, Matatini funding, the Māori Health Authority and the Māori Covid-19 response. They’re changes they believe wouldn’t have happened, or at least to the degree in which they have, without their presence in the house.
Still, Ngarewa-Packer sees radical potential in those joyful expressions of identity. In addition to advancing buzz around this new generation of Te Pāti Māori, their aesthetic sparkle transcends just their own party. Rather, “everyone’s unapologetically Māori now”.
“I often think, is it performative, or is it just being ourselves?,” Ngarewa-Packer says. “We have to encourage it because we’re not going to be stifled and quiet about things that matter, that’s not from our culture.
“We were never quiet politically – and passion should never be quiet.”