Rebuilding support for her seatless party in the midst of a global pandemic is an unenviable task, but new Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is taking it in her stride.
On April 15 the Māori Party announced its new co-leaders, one tāne, one wahine, as per the party’s charter. In the top spots, the sometimes controversial former broadcaster and Labour MP John Tamihere, now head of the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, a relatively new face in national politics, but one that’s familiar to those in her rohe of Taranaki.
Ngarewa-Packer (Ngāti Ruahine, Ngāruahine, Ngā Rauru) stepped up to contest the Te Tai Hauāuru seat, currently held by Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe, back in October 2019. At the time, former Green Party policy co-convener Jack McDonald wrote an impassioned endorsement of her nomination: “Debbie Ngarewa-Packer demonstrates what kaupapa Māori leadership can and should look like. We need her in parliament.”
When I call her at home she’s “hui-ed out” from a day of calls and online meetings, and distracted by the more pressing matter of getting wood cut for kaumātua in her area. “Real life,” she says, laughing.
Real life for the CEO of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Ruanui, and former deputy mayor of South Taranaki, for many years has been advocating for Māori health and the environment at a grassroots level. Ngāti Ruanui has led a four-year fight against Trans-Tasman Resources, a company looking to mine up to 50 million tonnes of iron sands off the south Taranaki coast, and claimed victory this month with a Court of Appeal decision that ruled against its seabed mining consent.
The company is seeking leave from the Supreme Court to appeal the decision, meaning Ngāti Ruanui will likely find themselves in court again.
“We’re annoyed that we may have to go to court for a fourth time as right now our efforts are focused on protecting our community from Covid-19,” she sad in a statement on Friday. “But we are undeterred in our resolve and we will oppose TTR’s application for yet another appeal.”
So despite a bid for a seat in parliament and the unenviable task of rebuilding national support for the seatless Māori Party, the work at home will continue, it seems. “I guess life has always been focused around kaupapa and home and marae and iwi. So it will be the same, but a wider a platform for us to take some of our issues to… I’ve been waiting for a while to stretch that platform,” she tells me.
Ngarewa-Packer and Tamihere are the first leaders appointed since the Māori Party failed in its bid to stay in parliament at the 2017 general election, after which then-leaders Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell stood down. This is also the first time since the formation of the party that leaders have been appointed without any representatives in parliament. For the party members, it was a chance to start from scratch, Ngarewa-Packer says. The nomination and election process also had to be done remotely thanks to the Covid-19 restrictions.
“It was encouraging that the nominations had to come from the electorates,” Ngarewa-Packer notes. “The nominations then had to go back to the electorates and they had a special general meeting that determined the leaders only if the electorates gave 100% support.”
The general meeting was held online and the announcement of the new leaders made soon after. Ngarewa-Packer says, as modestly as possible, they ran uncontested. “It came out that there were a strong two. No other names were put forward.”
She says the focus leading up to the election will be on health and the environment. Pre-Covid, a lot of energy was being put into the party’s flagship programme Whānau Ora, established in 2010 by founding Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia. “Also He Kai Kei Aku Ringa, a major piece of policy within E Rere, which is about employment and training for our rangatahi. And obviously with my presence, it’s a major push on wai, on our environment and our seabed.
“But to be really honest, we’ve spent a lot of time on Covid. A lot of thinking on how we capture what the Māori movement has done across the motu with our pandemic response. All the responses that we’ve been involved in, whether it be Waipareira care packages or iwi protecting their borders, or us here at Te Tai Hauāuru with creating our own digital hubs, our own welfare centres, our own testing stations.
“The stand-up way Māori have responded must become a critical part of the future of Aotearoa. We’ve always talked about the strength of mana motuhake and the strength of Te Tiriti partnerships, but sometimes it’s not a tangible thing that the average person can grasp. So that’s the most important part, making sure that we amplify that and bring that through in a strategic and policy setting for this government.”
Ngarewa-Packer was a key voice in the Covid-19 iwi response, not only in analysing and mitigating risks in her own rohe, but in keeping applied pressure on local and central government to include Māori in their risk assessment. Despite some initial oversights, she thinks the government has done well.
“We want to work with the government and apply different politics in what unity and working together looks like. I think that’s the leadership we’re seeing from the prime minister; she’s done a sterling job.”
She’s coy about whether there are any big issues on which they’ll be taking on Labour’s Māori caucus. “We’re Māori! There will be lots of kaupapa we butt heads about. The most important thing is to respect people when you do go head to head, to disrupt thinking and to land something that’s going to be a critical lever or solution.”
Regardless of who she might find herself in opposition to, she’s critical of attack politics, calling it “old boys’ behaviour”.
“This behaviour of looking for things you don’t have in common instead of a strengths-based approach, it’s really archaic. I don’t think that’s the politics that turns our people on and brings about unity. We’re at war, we’re trying to save our whānau’s lives. So it’s going to take a different type of discipline.”
When I point out that’s she described a style of politics her co-leader has subscribed to in the past, she’s diplomatic.
“[John] has taken a different journey to arrive to where he believes is the best position for mana motuhake. I’ve always had clarity of politics and I’ve always had clarity of Te Pāti Māori and its purpose, so I have no doubt that there will be different styles.”
Commentators were quick to point out the potentially incompatible differences between the two leaders – Tamihere’s forceful rhetoric versus Ngarewa-Packer’s tend-the-ahi-kaa approach. Diplomatically avoiding another question on whether she’s worried Tamihere is a divisive figure, she says, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about a lot of things that we have before us”.
“I’m really worried that we’re not in government. I’m worried that we’ve got such a big mission to help push all the amazing kaupapa that are going on and our own solutions to get people out of poverty and out of situations that the government machine doesn’t understand how to solve.”
“It’s natural for us all to have concerns, but I do think that the party has an absolute conviction of purpose and I think that’s our focus. It has to be. I have no doubt we will have challenges!
“I mean, look at Jacinda and Winston, who would have thought?”