delivers a speech during Labour Party Congress 2014 at Michael Fowler Centre on July 6, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Labour's election year Congress runs from July 4 to 6 and focuses on preparing and planning the party's nationwide election campaign. New Zealand's general election will be held on 20 September.

Tamati won Waiariki with hard work, nous, and a little help from the Māori Party

One of the biggest surprises of the 2017 election was Tamati Coffey’s win in the electorate of Waiariki – unseating Te Ururoa Flavell and ushering the Māori Party out of parliament. Campaign chair Haydn Marriner takes us inside Team Tamati’s strategy.

It was deemed by all political pundits, Māori and non-Māori (aside from Morgan Godfery) as Mission Impossible. There was no way Tamati Coffey could win Waiariki. After all, no one defeats a party leader and minister of the crown. If only they’d done their research. As we saw, Te Ururoa Flavell could be beaten: we just needed the right strategy, the right candidate and the Māori Party to come to our party.

After the 2014 result Tamati dusted himself off and put his shoulder back to the grind, focusing on local issues, like the amalgamation of our local tertiary institutes in the BOP, predatory water extraction at Otakiri and of course holding the “friends with benefits” government lead by the National Party to account in his monthly column in our local newspaper.

In early 2016, Tamati pulled his campaign team together to discuss what 2017 was going to look like with the idea that he wanted to stand again, but this time in the Waiariki electorate. So we went to work, where a careful analysis of the 2011 and 2014 elections showed that Labour was overwhelmingly the party of choice for Waiariki, giving us a good base platform to campaign from. Early on the goal was to try and capitalise on those strong Labour Party vote numbers and convert them to electorate votes.

That wasn’t going to be enough to take the seat, we also needed a little luck and that came with the Māori Party and Mana Movement MOU, which upon review must be seen as one of the biggest own goals of the election. If the MOU wasn’t in place and Mana had stood a candidate, it could very well have enabled Te Ururoa to hold his seat as he had in 2011 and 2014. Just a little homework on the voting numbers and they would have seen in Waiariki in 2011 and 2014 more people voted against Te Ururoa then for him. Part of the reason for his retaining the seat was that the against vote was split between multiple candidates, but with the MOU, it became a two horse race and Tamati focused us on his strategy: “Reach out to the Mana voters, they will decide the Waiariki.”

And so they did. Tamati’s 1,719 majority doesn’t capture the achievement: this was a swing of 5,608 away from Te Ururoa’s 2014 result.

Tamati Coffey delivers a speech during Labour Party Congress in 2014. Photo: Getty images

Every message, every post, every picture was about reaching out to two camps, our grassroots Labour voters and the Mana voters left with no candidate. Tamati genuinely loves to be around people wherever he can, so he went everywhere – to their doorsteps, the street, at the rugby or the netball or down to every the marae that would have him. It really was old fashioned hard yards campaigning over more than year.

Tamati would get in his beat up old car and clock up the kilometres around the motu, listening to the people, talking policy and talking hope. We got really lucky sometimes as well. Our campaign was stalling for oxygen in the media until Te Ururoa got offended by being called a koro (not by Tamati) and challenged him to a running race, which was awesome as it put Tamati in front of the national media again, and gave him the chance to discuss land reform, healthcare and poverty.

The post election media persisted in asking about Tamati “killing” the Māori Party. The Māori Party, like NZ First or the Greens had two shots at making it to parliament. With over 14% of eligible voters being Māori on the roll they had a better than decent shot at gaining 5%, but they didn’t. Neither Tamati nor any individual ever had the power to kill the Māori Party, the voters made their choice based on their own reasons. Some have asked us as Māori how did we feel about the Māori Party not being in parliament. For me, it wasn’t about the Māori Party not being in parliament, it was more about putting someone we believed in, into the seat where his values reflected our own.

We are sad for the Māori Party as we also know what it’s like to lose an election or two and how hard it is to campaign from the outside. But we never bought into the notion that Māori must support Māori Party, because no political party or its supporters has a right to claim our Māoritanga, that’s something that doesn’t belong to a Westminster system. Supporting Labour doesn’t make us less Māori, it just makes our political focuses different.

Many people who don’t know Tamati will assume his biggest asset is his fame. In reality his biggest asset is his work ethic and dedication. He campaigned for over three years at his own expense, no government pay check, no paid staff, just volunteering his time to his campaign, funding it all himself. Many would have given up, but giving up isn’t who Tamati is. Waiariki now not only has an amazing young MP, but one with grit and determination second to none, but more than that he has given many people a new lease of hope that things can turn around and that he is the man to get that happening. Aware that both pressure and the spotlight is on him now, I am sure te iwi Māori will see him the way we have, as a man with great aroha and manaaki for his people, one who will deliver a fresh set of energies to the needs of the Waiariki.

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