What does the government minister’s leap to te Pāti Māori mean for Labour, the shape of parliament and future coalitions, asks Toby Manhire?
Spring in London, and Chris Hipkins was meant to have his mind on the coronation, only to find his attentions sucked back to the politics playing out back home, with an MP set to defect to another party. Fittingly, at least, that party is one that has kingmaker potential of its own.
Meka Whaitiri, member for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti since 2013, will announce this morning at Waitapu Marae in Hastings that she intends to stand at the next election in the seat for the Māori Party. It’s not just that she’s an MP, however. Whaitiri is a government minister, a status which makes such a leap dramatically more meaningful and surprising.
The first report of Whaitiri’s shift in allegiances described her as a cabinet minister. In reality, the fact that she is not in cabinet was likely instrumental in her decision. Whaitiri lost her seat at that table in 2018, with Jacinda Ardern demoting her after allegations of bullying. She was restored to a ministerial position after the 2020 election, but remained outside cabinet even when Stuart Nash was sacked by Hipkins. She was, however, assigned his role as minister responsible for cyclone recovery in Hawke’s Bay. That job will soon have its third occupant in a month.
Hipkins was blindsided, and he didn’t pretend otherwise. Fresh from pressing the flesh with Prince William at Kensington Palace, he told media he hadn’t heard from Meka Whaitiri and calls so far had gone unanswered. “I obviously want to do her the courtesy of hearing what she has to say, if anything, before I make a comment on it,” he said. Not for the first time, a New Zealand party leader found themselves scrambling over internecine manoeuvres in an information void from the other side of the world.
Asked on Newstalk ZB yesterday whether she intended to embrace her acting prime minister status and make some bold calls, Carmel Sepuloni said: “No bold calls by me – I’m not expecting to make any over the course of this week.” That didn’t last long. Whaitiri will be sacked from her ministerial positions – unless she quits them first.
But what of her seat? Should Whaitiri write to the speaker announcing she’s jumping to te Pāti Māori, the waka jumping legislation is automatically triggered and her seat vacated. Thanks to legislation enacted at the behest of New Zealand First after 2017, she would be an MP no longer. Because it’s within six months of an election, the required 75% of parliament would probably vote to skip a byelection.
An alternative approach would see Whaitiri eschewing the formal route and instead simply voicing her intention to switch allegiances for the impending election. Labour would then, it’s safe to say, expel her from caucus. Whether they’d go further and invoke the waka jumping process would be a trickier call. It may depend on just how betrayed, how pissed off, they feel. Should that be a decision to make, the views of Labour’s Māori caucus would hold a great deal of weight.
It is no sure thing just how Whaitiri’s arrival will impact the Māori Party dynamic. If she were to pull off a victory in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti and the party failed to surge in party vote, co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer could miss out. In truth, however, Ngarewa-Packer probably has a better chance of winning Te Tai Hauāuru than Whaitiri does Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, a seat which has been held by two Labour candidates – Whaitiri and before her the talismanic Parekura Horomia – since its inception in 1999.
As for the kingmaker status, the Whaitiri waka jump makes an unlikely Māori Party post-election deal with National even unlikelier. Christopher Luxon this morning stopped short of unequivocally ruling it out, but emphasised that as far as he is concerned, Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are “all one bloc”.
That might boost Labour’s prospects based on polling mathematics, but supporters can only grasp at silver linings. The defection of an MP – no, the defection of a minister of the crown – with an election campaign just a few months away, is a bloody nose. To leave your leader and the prime minister in an information vacuum on the other side of the world just makes it worse.
Labour began the term with 65 seats. If Whaitiri jumps, it will be down to 62. The majority isn’t under threat, but the picture of cohesion is. Apart from anything else, so soon after the Stuart Nash debacle, Hipkins’ determination to focus incessantly on bread-and-butter cost-of-living issues is creaking. Instead it’s palace politics, Beehive style.