The Māori caucus statement that it stands by Meka Whaitiri is simply tikanga in action, writes Morgan Godfery.
Parliament and the Beehive are, as workplaces, uniquely awful. The expectations are high. The hours are punishing. And the work never really stops. There’s correspondence to file, press releases to draft, briefings to read or write, negotiations to be had, and decisions to be made. Keen young folk go in, and sometimes aged hacks come out. You can spot the former staffers roaming Lambton Quay at 1.55pm, asking bystanders whether they can hear a bell ringing too.
Now this isn’t meant as a sledge. Instead it’s another way of saying I sympathise with Meka Whaitiri’s former press secretary. The Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP is accused of grabbing the press secretary’s shoulder, leaving bruising, and giving the presser a bit of a verbal blasting. The facts are in dispute – Whaitiri denies grabbing the press secretary’s shoulder – but the barrister responsible for investigating the incident found that, on the balance of probabilities, the grab happened.
But whether it did or not – do we give MPs the benefit of the doubt? – Parliament and the Beehive are bad and busy enough without your new boss rinsing you after missing an opportunity to, quite literally, stand in a background shot. Press secretaries are so often on the edge. Waiting for the next phone call, the next event, and the next mistake. It’s not only a challenging job – it’s a challenging state of being. The best ministers understand this, and they treat their staffers with patience.
In this case, that patience appears to have gone missing, and whether a grab happened or not the prime minister made the right to call to remove Whaitiri’s ministerial portfolios. In an ideal world the issue would end here. Instead the rumour mongers got to work. “I wish Meka would fight for charter schools as hard as people say she fights her staff,” wrote Act leader David Seymour. “It’s either a beat up”, as in media beat up, wrote National MP Chris Penk, “or a beat up” (as in a physical beat up). This isn’t just bad taste – it’s straight up nasty.
But the criticism that really stings is that Labour’s Māori caucus, of which Whaitiri remains co-chair, is simply “protecting [its] own” and ignoring the victim. First, it’s untrue – “we stand by Meka Whaitiri, we stand by the victim,” Nanaia Mahuta told Parliament – and second, it weaponises a cultural difference. Parliamentary culture prioritises in-group interests. That’s as true for Labour as it is for National. But tikanga works differently. In a situation where there are competing claims and hurts, you have to uphold each side’s mana, and the Māori caucus is responsible for upholding Meka Whaitiri’s.
In short: it has nothing to do with in-group interest. It’s their tikanga at work. For this the Māori caucus deserve credit – care and manaaki don’t distinguish between the deserving and underserving. Whether Whaitiri is at fault or not, she’s entitled to care and support. This is unambiguously a good thing. Parliament and the Beehive drain the life out of their MPs and ministers, and peer support makes all the difference. The same applies to Whaitiri’s former press secretary too. Whether the presser is right or wrong, Ministerial Services should front with care and support, and the Māori caucus should consider a reconciliation.
That reconciliation could determine whether Whaitiri ever returns to the Ministry.