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Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)
Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

BooksNovember 14, 2021

How the Māori Party defied expectations at the 2020 election

Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)
Māori Party co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/ Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

For te ao Māori, the biggest story of a Covid-dominated election was the return of the Māori Party, write Lara Greaves and Elle Morgan as part of a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Politics in a Pandemic.

In the days after their exit from parliament following the 2017 election, the then Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox commented that Māori voters had returned to Labour “like a beaten wife to the abuser”. Indeed, while the major story for Māori politics in the 2017 election was the downfall of the Māori Party, in 2020 the main story was its return after Rawiri Waititi unseated Labour’s Tāmati Coffey in Waiariki. The return of the Māori Party was even more surprising, given the challenges associated with being a small party outside of parliament, the media focus on Covid-19, and a substantial victory for Labour overall. This article focuses on Māori in the 2020 election. It covers what we see as the major story of the election for Māori: the return of the Māori Party and the contests in the Māori electorates.

While it could seem as though the return of the Māori Party came out of nowhere, the Māori Party underwent a process of renewal after its 2017 defeat. Firstly, both co-leaders resigned. Te Ururoa Flavell went to the tertiary education sector and later became the CEO of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa (the largest Māori tertiary education provider). Marama Fox worked as a consultant; however, her business dealings led to further negative media attention after it was revealed she owed creditors more than $110,000. Secondly, a new executive leadership team was elected: in 2018 Che Wilson and Kaapua Smith were elected as president and deputy president of the party. Both were relatively young (aged 42 and 35 respectively) and represented a generational shift, but the wāhine and tāne co-leader and candidate slots remained open.

Later, in April, the party selected its co-leaders: Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and John Tamihere. Ngarewa-Packer, a Taranaki community leader, seabed mining campaigner and former Deputy Mayor of South Taranaki, was set to run in Te Tai Hauāuru. Tamihere, CEO of the Whānau Ora commissioning agency, was announced as the party’s candidate for Tāmaki Makaurau. The selection of Tamihere as co-leader was not without its detractors, given his long history in the public eye and tendency to make controversial comments. Notable examples include: referring to his female Labour Party colleagues as “front bums” and arguing that women received special treatment; victim-blaming comments around the “Roast Busters” group; and, most recently, using a Nazi salute in a 2019 mayoral debate. Tamihere would likely counter criticisms of past controversies with suggestions that he is working class and that, in reality, voters do not care about such talk.

In 2020, the political context for the Māori Party was likely to be challenging from the outset. As proven by a number of minor parties over the years, including exceptionally well-funded parties (such as the Conservatives, TOP, and Internet-Mana), it is incredibly difficult for a minor party to get into parliament. Under MMP, a party must gain 5% of the party vote or win an electorate seat to gain representation. In previous years the Māori Party had gained representation through winning a Māori electorate and only ever got to 2.4% of the overall party vote (in 2008). It was clear from these previous party vote results that winning one or more of the Māori electorates should be the strategic focus if the party wished to gain representation again. In addition, the Māori Party faced extra challenges in trying to return to parliament. Such a feat had previously only been achieved with the return of Winston Peters’ New Zealand First Party in 2011 after its exit from parliament in 2008. Being a party with an established name and reputation, especially after pairing with the National Party, meant that the Māori Party had to rebuild its image, identity and relationships with Māori voters.

The 2020 general election presented added challenges for minor parties, as it will no doubt go down in history as the Covid-19 election. Many politicians felt overshadowed by the presence of Jacinda Ardern, who proved popular in the Māori electorates in 2017. However, 2019 was also a watershed year for Māori-related policy, with several policy issues capturing broad media attention. Of particular note was the dispute over important heritage land at Ihumātao being used for housing. Members of Save Our Unique Landscape (Soul; later Protect Ihumātao), a group led by Pania Newton, had been living on the land since 2016 to prevent construction, and led action in the courts,

United Nations, and other protests. In July 2019, land protectors flocked to the site after a trespass notice was issued against Soul. While the conflict had been de-escalated from its initial level of tension, the issue was not resolved heading into the 2020 election. Additionally, in June 2019, Newsroom published a documentary showing a Māori newborn baby being uplifted by Oranga Tamariki (the Ministry for Children). The investigation and subsequent scandal highlighted structural racism and a lack of Māori input in the child welfare system.

These events were simply part of a broader list of unresolved policy issues including: the underfunding of Whānau Ora (an indigenous community-centred health initiative underpinned by Māori cultural values), the Waitangi Tribunal Hauora report and the push towards an Independent Māori Health Authority, discriminatory referendum laws around the formation of Māori wards in local government, the lack of entrenchment of the Māori electorates, a number of Treaty settlements still to be resolved (including with the largest Iwi, Ngāpuhi), and racism in education. Furthermore, it was clear that due to existing inequities, the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic would lead to worse outcomes for Māori. This led to multiple Iwi, hapū, and Māori communities instituting road blocks in order to stem the spread of Covid-19, as well as the establishment of Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, the National Māori Pandemic Group, to provide advice for Māori communities. However, countering the plethora of issues still to be resolved, in the 2019 budget the Labour Party provided a large amount of targeted funding for Māori, including $480 million in Māori development spending. A significant barrier to Māori policy progress was New Zealand First, which had openly talked about being a self-styled “handbrake” on these issues.

Given the need to rebuild the Māori Party after its 2017 defeat and the challenges associated with Covid-19 and the election, the party’s co-leaders indicated that they were happy to take a long-term approach. During the campaign – although he contends he was misquoted – Tamihere even commented that 2020 would not be the year for the Māori Party to return to parliament, and committed to three elections with the party, telling a journalist “2023’s going to be a ripper”. Multiple commentators also predicted that 2020 would not be the Māori Party’s year. Nevertheless, throughout the campaign, the party adopted a core strategy and a clear policy platform.

The Māori Party – strategy, policies and platform

The Māori Party pursued a candidate-vote-only strategy in the Māori electorates. This meant that the candidates explicitly campaigned for only the electorate vote and not the party vote across each of the seven Māori electorates. The appeal behind this strategy was that Māori voters could get a kind of two-for-one deal on Māori representation. The Māori Party pitch was that voting for the Māori Party candidate would mean that Māori would gain a local Māori Party MP, while giving their party vote to the Labour Party would mean that Labour’s Māori candidates could enter parliament on the list. The strategy was best summarised on the party’s social media with the slogan: “Labour want two ticks to keep Māori out, Māori want one tick to get more Māori in”. Indeed, this strategy ultimately (at least partially) paid off, with Rawiri Waititi unseating incumbent Labour MP Tāmati Coffey in Waiariki and the party gaining a second MP (Debbie Ngarewa-Packer) with the special votes, winning 1.2% of the party vote overall.

The Māori Party had a range of clear, specific policies that were announced over an incremental timeline. Increased funding for Māori organisations and initiatives and honouring a Māori worldview were the underlying themes of these policies. Initially, the party announced a “Whānau First” policy that involved 25% of all government contracts being procured by Māori following the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown. Subsequent policies were aimed at upholding Māori freshwater rights and interests, and addressing climate change by establishing a $1 billion fund for Māori community energy projects and ceasing the issuing of oil and gas permits. Economic policies aimed at raising the minimum wage to $25 per hour, as well as large-scale, detailed changes to the benefit system (including changing welfare conditions and creating a targeted, two-tier welfare system). A “Whānau Build” policy promised changes such as 50% of social housing being made available to Māori first, limiting immigration and foreign purchase of freehold land, and changes to taxation of property. Policies were announced to address issues that had gained lots of media attention in 2020, such as Oranga Tamariki and the racism present in the education system; these policies included establishing an independent Mokopuna Māori entity, making Māori history and te reo Māori core curriculum subjects, and ensuring Māori staff are present in senior positions.

Other key policies included adopting recommendations for constitutional transformation put forward by Matike Mai Aotearoa (an independent working group made up of members from the National Iwi Chairs Forum, Māori organisations and Māori academics) and automatically enrolling all Māori on the Māori roll. The Māori Party also proposed changing New Zealand’s name to Aotearoa and restoring Māori place names, and increasing funding for kapa haka (Māori performing arts) organisations. While the Māori Party is difficult to place on a traditional Western political science left-right spectrum, the positioning of the party across various policy issues in the 2020 campaign seemed to represent a shift to the left. The 2020 Māori Party also ruled out working with National after the election, with Ngarewa-Packer calling the idea “untenable”.

Throughout the 2020 campaign, the Māori Party positioned itself as an “unapologetic” Māori voice. Māori Party candidates in debates, advertising and on social media highlighted the Māori Party’s potential to be an effective opposition in parliament, one that solely represented Māori. In debates, Māori Party candidates continually emphasised the challenges that Māori faced within the Labour Party; these included the potential for Māori MPs to be overruled by a Labour caucus that was majority Pākehā, and the challenge of representing a Māori voice within a party that was not Māori-centric. The consistent message that Māori Party candidates expressed was that they were Māori in a Māori party rather than Māori in the Labour Party. Labour candidates countered this point by highlighting their actions in government over the last term, and reminded voters of the fact that the Māori Party had been in coalition with the National Party between 2008 and 2017, a move that attracted widespread criticism.

The Māori Party adopted a number of consistent key messages that reinforced its unapologetically Māori stance and the party’s key values. The ‘Believe in you, believe in me, believe in Māori’ slogan, adopted at the start of the campaign, reflected the party’s commitment to the “realisation and fulfilment of all the dreams and aspirations of our people on our terms”. The campaign drew on elements of Māori culture and metaphors in order to communicate key party stances and decisions. Rawiri Waititi, candidate for the Waiariki electorate, often described the party’s policies as a “pou in the ground”. The use of pouwhenua, traditional Māori carved wooden posts (used to mark territorial boundaries and places of significance), in this context conveys the unapologetic stance at the centre of the party’s messaging.

The Māori Party were the second most active party on Facebook throughout the campaign, behind the Labour Party. According to the New Zealand Social Media Study, Tamihere was the most active campaigner on Facebook across all parties, publishing 188 Facebook posts during the campaign period. The study’s co-leader Dr Mona Krewel noted that the Māori Party’s use of social media demonstrated an example of minor parties compensating for a smaller budget with a “very engaged user of social media”: in this case, Tamihere. Krewel characterised many of the Māori Party’s posts as “mobilising”, with a large focus on advance voting. The Māori Party used Facebook to provide information about enrolling to vote, overseas voting, voting place locations, election day rules and voting during the advance voting period, along with interactive templates for supporters to post on their own social media pages.

Building on this theme, the Māori Party drew on their kapa haka talents, cultural values, and connections with notable Māori to increase support, all largely showcased through social media. Often Facebook live streams were held, featuring kapa haka performances or karakia (blessings). These online events became more frequent throughout the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in March–April, continuing through the rest of the campaign. The Māori Party had also built links with a number of influential Māori figures and organisations, many of whom featured on the party’s “Māori conversations” series, where candidates and experts discussed social and political issues and Māori Party policy. The party was once again endorsed by Kiingi Tuheitia and the Kiingitanga, who had previously shown support before the 2017 election. The Mana Movement also endorsed the Māori Party in a statement shared on social media, and early in the campaign Soul leader Pania Newton appeared in a livestream as part of the “Māori conversations” series.

The Māori Party also maintained a consistent presence in traditional media. Māori-led election coverage from The Hui and Māori Television provided a range of Māori electorate debates (and, crucially, polling). The tone and issues covered in the debates were notably different to those in the general media. The general leaders’ debates lacked coverage of Māori issues, to the point that a petition was launched to initiate a Māori-led, Māori-issue leaders’ debate; it remains to be seen whether this will be in place for 2023. The tone of the debates within the Māori electorates emphasized whanaungatanga, that is, valuing relationships and a sense of family-like connections between candidates. This carried over to being more inclusive of a range of candidates. Controversially, the debates on both Māori Television and The Hui included Billy Te Kahika in Te Tai Tokerau and Hannah Tamaki in Waiariki. Tamaki, leader of Vision New Zealand and the wife of Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki, had attracted much criticism since the party’s formation in 2019 for proposing policies such as a ban on the construction of mosques and drastically reducing immigration. Advance New Zealand co-leader Billy Te Kahika was widely criticised for spreading misinformation regarding the Covid-19 virus and the 2020 nationwide lockdown. The Māori Party also successfully pushed for inclusion in the TVNZ minor party leaders’ debate after arguing the inclusion rules did not adequately take into account the influence of the Māori electorates.

Māori Television commissioned a series of polls across the seven electorates. In Aotearoa, electorate-level polls are rare given their cost and general lack of influence on the composition of parliament under MMP. However, the Māori electorate polls were important so that voters could assess the Māori Party candidates’ chances in any of the electorates and decide whether they could give their party vote to the Māori Party without feeling like it would be “wasted” if the party didn’t reach the 5% party vote threshold. The Māori electorates are challenging to poll for many reasons, including their geographical size, voter confusion over whether they are on the General roll or the Māori roll, the lack of a reliable sampling frame for Māori (ie, there is no phone list of all Māori to randomly choose from), and so on. However, they provide the best-available systematic attempt at predicting the Māori electorate race outcomes. These polls showed the Māori Party candidate trailing the Labour candidate by 6% in Tāmaki Makaurau, 12% in Waiariki and 18% in Te Tai Hauāuru, indicating that there could be some close races.

Contests in the Māori electorates

Given these polls, the Māori electorates can be split into two categories based on the likelihood of the Māori Party unseating the Labour incumbent. Four electorate contests never looked close. In Te Tai Tokerau (the northernmost Māori electorate), incumbent and number two on the Labour list Kelvin Davis contested the election against the Māori Party’s Mariameno Kapa-Kingi. In Hauraki-Waikato (stretching from the Manukau Harbour and the Coromandel Peninsula to Waihi Beach, the Kaimai Ranges and Matamata in the south) Labour minister Nanaia Mahuta ran against the Māori Party’s Donna Pokere-Phillips. Ikaroa-Rāwhiti (encompassing Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa, Hutt Valley and Wainuiomata) was a contest between Labour’s Meka Whaitiri, Māori Party candidate Heather Te Au-Skipworth, and Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, who went on to become a list MP for the Green Party. In Te Tai Tonga (the southernmost Māori electorate, comprising the whole of the South Island and part of Wellington), Labour’s Rino Tirikatene, of the Tirikatene political dynasty, faced the Māori Party’s Tākuta Ferris and Ariana Paretutanganui-Tamati from the Green Party.

While the Māori Party candidates across these electorates managed to pick up between 6,255 and 7,597 votes, the eventual margins of victory to the Labour party candidates were all between 6,045 and 9,630 votes. In contrast, three electorates emerged as potentially winnable for Māori Party candidates: Waiariki, Te Tai Hauāuru and Tāmaki Makaurau.

Waiariki (running from Tauranga, Whakatāne and Waihau Bay to Tūrangi in the south, and encompassing Rotorua and Taupō) turned out to be a close-run victory for Māori Party candidate Rawiri Waititi. There were tense times on election night as a narrow gap against Waititi turned into a 415-vote lead by the end of the night. Won by Labour’s Tāmati Coffey in 2017, Waiariki was previously held by former Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell between 2005 and 2017. Key candidates in 2020 included Coffey, Waititi and Hannah Tamaki, leader of the newly formed Vision New Zealand Party. Waititi, the son-in-law of party leader John Tamihere, ran in the Waiariki seat with the Labour Party in 2014 before announcing support for the Māori Party in 2016. Waititi is also a tohunga of the Ringatū faith (a Māori religious movement, with a large number of members in the Bay of Plenty region). Several notable factors likely contributed to Waititi’s victory, including a campaign that drew on Māori culture, his performance across the debates, and Tamaki potentially splitting Coffey’s voter base.

Waititi’s campaign strategy was unique as it regularly drew on his strong background in kapa haka. Public performances, branded “kapa haka flash mobs”, would take place at public places and gatherings, and were simultaneously livestreamed on Facebook. Other initiatives, such as a Facebook video series entitled “Waiariki Waiata” and public events such as “Vote Kapa Vote”, similarly utilised kapa haka as a campaign tool and means of bringing together supporters. Waititi continually highlighted the value in kapa haka and eventually announced the party’s Toi Māori policy, which promised increased funding for Te Matatini (a national kapa haka and Māori performing arts festival and competition) and a $10 million investment into kapa haka development.

Waititi performed strongly in the candidate debates. During debates, candidates weighed in on a number of local issues unique to the Waiariki electorate, such as the overlapping claims between Tauranga-Moana and Pare Hauraki Iwi groups. The issue stemmed from claims by the Tauranga-Moana Iwi collective that the Crown incorrectly allocated redress to Hauraki Iwi as a result of what Tauranga-Moana have labelled flawed overlapping claims policies and practices. Waititi repeatedly expressed support for Treaty reform and for the Tauranga-Moana Iwi collective and their viewpoint on the issue when questioned in debates, and later reaffirmed his position in videos posted to his Facebook page. Coffey announced that the Labour Māori caucus would attend a hui at Whareroa marae on the overlapping claims issues and argued that there is a need to “get around the table” and go through a tikanga-based process in order to resolve the issue. However, Coffey was criticised for delaying his response to the issue, and the effectiveness of his actions are yet to be determined. Other issues unique to the electorate included air pollution in Tauranga, Environment Court and High Court challenges to expansion of a water bottling plant in the Otakiri Springs, and the economic effects of Covid-19 on tourism and business in Rotorua.

Another factor contributing to Waititi’s victory may have been Hannah Tamaki’s decision to run in the electorate. Following the Māori Television debate, arguments emerged regarding Tamaki potentially splitting Coffey’s voter base. Paora Stanley, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Te Rangi chief executive, argued that Tamaki had been very active campaigning in poorer urban communities that Coffey had gained votes from in 2017. In the face of an overwhelming victory for the Labour Party and its candidates across even historically National electorates, Waiariki was the one electorate where a Labour incumbent lost, by a margin of just 836 votes; Hannah Tamaki finished third, with 1,171 votes. In summary, there were a number of factors contributing to this result, and there will be varied Māori opinions on why this was the case.

Te Tai Hauāuru (stretching from Ōtorohanga and Tokoroa to the Kāpiti Coast and Porirua at its southern boundary, and including the Taranaki, Manawatu and Whanganui regions) was pegged by the media as the main race to watch. Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe only won the electorate by 1,039 votes over the Māori Party candidate in the 2017 election. His only opponent in the 2020 election was Māori Party co- leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. Rurawhe has strong links to both the Rātana movement (a Māori religious and political movement) and politics, being the great-grandson of Rātana founder Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, and the grandson of former Western Māori MPs Matiu Rātana and Iriaka Rātana, but he had faced criticism for his lack of a broader public or media profile. It seemed like an electorate that could be won by Ngarewa-Packer.

In debates, Rurawhe continued to highlight the successes of the Labour government over the last term and reminded voters of the actions of the past Māori-Party-National coalition. In response, Ngarewa-Packer emphasised the Māori Party stance as standing for Māori, and challenging the government. Other key issues in the electorate that were discussed by candidates included King Country energy hardship and seabed mining. Rurawhe argued that no action had been taken in the last term to address energy hardship due to the difficulties of working with coalition partners, while Ngarewa-Packer argued for a transition to solar panels in the region and additional support in the meantime. Ngarewa-Packer, who has campaigned against seabed mining off the coast of Taranaki, argued for banning it, while Rurawhe highlighted that Labour had ceased the issue of new mining permits. Rurawhe eventually won the electorate, 1,053 votes ahead of Ngarewa-Packer.

Finally, Tāmaki Makaurau (the Auckland region) proved to be an interesting three-way contest between relatively high-profile Māori, Green and Labour party candidates. As previously noted, Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere was a controversial figure who sought to unseat Labour’s Peeni Henare. Also contesting the electorate was Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, who had the highest public profile of the three Green candidates in the Māori electorates. The Māori Television-commissioned poll showed a 6% gap between Henare and Tamihere ten days before election day. It remains to be seen what influence Davidson had on the contest. On the one hand, past work has shown that Māori tend to be either Labour supporters or minor party supporters, which suggests that Davidson may have taken votes from Tamihere. On the other hand, the Labour and Green parties are both left-wing kaupapa Pākehā parties, so Davidson may have taken votes from Henare. However, quantitative analysis is needed to test this speculation. Ultimately, Henare defeated Tamihere with a margin of 927 votes.

On election night it looked for a while as though Rawiri Waititi would form a “one man band” of sorts in parliament, the likes of which we have seen in recent years from United Future’s Peter Dunne (2008–2017) and ACT’s David Seymour (2014–2020). The day after the election, Tamihere announced that he would stand aside as tāne co- leader in favour of Waititi taking the position. However, there was a tense two-week wait until the final results (including the special votes) were announced. Special votes include those who voted outside of their electorate’s geographical region, who enrolled to vote after writ day (a month before the election), or who voted from overseas, plus a range of smaller groups. The special votes must have contained a substantial proportion of Māori Party supporters, as in the final result its party vote increased from 1% to 1.2%, meaning that Ngarewa-Packer joined Waititi in parliament. The special votes also widened the gap in Waiariki to 836 votes from the 415-vote margin on election night. It may be that those who are enrolled to vote where their hapū/iwi is rather than their current location of residence are more likely to support the Māori Party. In addition, more Māori who do not typically vote may have been motivated to enrol and turn out to vote by the cannabis referendum, an issue that disproportionately affects Māori. Indeed, there was a 7.9% increase in voter turnout for young Māori (aged 18–24) in the 2020 general election (Electoral Commission 2020). Future research should investigate the reasons behind the higher proportion of Māori Party votes in the special votes.


The main story of the 2020 general election for Māori has to be the return of the Māori Party. In the wake of a number of large issues, and contending with huge support for Labour nationwide, the party managed to win the Waiariki electorate and gain a second MP through the party vote. As of the end of 2020, Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer have managed to cause a stir by walking out of parliament in protest over its speaking rules for smaller parties, Waititi performing a haka for Te Tiriti o Waitangi before taking his Oath of Allegiance, and calling for Te Tiriti to be included in the oath.

More generally, the number of Māori members of parliament has remained steady, with 23 of parliament’s 120 members being of Māori descent. Since the election, the Labour government has made progress towards addressing Ihumātao, made commitments to introducing legislation regarding the establishment of Māori wards in local government, and appointed Hauraki-Waikato MP Nanaia Mahuta as New Zealand’s first female Māori foreign minister, who also wears moko kauae (a traditional Māori chin tattoo for females, representative of whakapapa, hapū and iwi).

Heading into the 2023 election we may see the resurgence of the Māori Party. The presence of two Māori Party MPs creates more of an electoral risk for Labour, given that parliament brings both the resources and the platform for more effective Māori opposition. There are a number of continuing policy issues that need solving for Māori to ensure equity and aspire to Te Tiriti partnership. Labour did not face strong opposition in the Māori electorates for multiple decades, but now the presence of the Māori Party in parliament means effective opposition in these electorates across the 2020 term and in the 2023 election. Long term, the Māori Party must balance a number of challenges and opportunities in a trade-off between making change and achieving their policy goals while avoiding being seen as part of the establishment. It is hard out there for a minor party, but is it even harder for a Māori party?

This is an edited extract from Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)

Read the party leaders’ reflections on the 2017 election, from Stardust and Substance, here

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