Capturing the heart of such a complex electorate requires more than just the right whakapapa or the right party behind you. Haimona Gray takes a look at Te Tai Hauāuru and the three wāhine contesting it.
What makes Te Tai Hauāuru a special seat, at a special time, that also highlights a bigger narrative of this general election as a whole? It would be corny to say “He tangata”… but He tangata! He tangata!
Why are the people so special? It may seem counterintuitive to call a Māori seat diverse – by nature they aren’t intended to be – but Te Tai Hauāuru is.
The reach of the seat cannot be understated. It’s almost a quarter of Te Ika-a-Māui, and its tribal makeup is the most diverse of any Māori electorate, with none holding any sort of clear advantage in terms of swinging Te Tai Hauāuru in any direction.
The Parliamentary Service defines Te Tai Hauāuru as “extending on its northern boundary from Kawhia on the west coast of the North Island to the Kaimai Ranges. From there the eastern boundary moves south, skirts Lake Taupō, travels down the length of the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges, then terminates near Belmont Regional Park near Grenada North. The western boundary is effectively the west coast of the North Island from Porirua and the Kāpiti Coast in the south, through to Whanganui and New Plymouth, and then as far north as the Kawhia Harbour.”
The electorate incorporates the rohe of the famously brilliant and good-looking Rangitāne, which this humble writer has whakapapa to… and all the other iwi and hapū of Taranaki, Whanganui, Horowhenua, Manawatū, the Kāpiti Coast and Porirua, along with Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Maniapoto.
Over our shared histories, the many iwi who claim mana whenua status within the current Te Tai Hauāuru have gone to bed and to war with each other many times, with explosive results in both cases.
Capturing the heart of enough of such a complex electoral seat requires more than just the right whakapapa or the right party behind you, and this has never been truer than in this election.
Unemployment is low, but so are wages when compared to the rest of the country. The cost of living affects this electorate more than most as it is a combination of mid-sized towns like Whanganui and Palmerston North, where infrastructure and health services are struggling, and rural areas where shopping around can mean driving for hours, and where waiting for a GP can mean months.
This is one of the big challenges and advantages of such an electorate. It’s spread out, big towns/small cities, each with their own challenges, kaumātua, hōhā cuzzies and aunties holding everything together.
Big seats like Te Tai Hauāuru and Te Tai Tonga mean less face time for candidates and their constituents, more time travelling around the motu and, importantly, less ability to have those deep community connections which matter more in Māori seats where campaign budgets are stretched and words spreads across the ‘“kūmara vine” faster than on social media.
You may be the man in Tirau, but if no one in Porirua has heard of you, and if you haven’t won over Patea, you are paddling upstream against a powerful awa.
All of this benefits an established name, someone with a bit of brand recognition, as well as a big and organised campaign team. This normally would point to a Labour victory, but between the rise of Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and the fascinating return to Māori seat politics of the National Party, everything is in play. Well, two outcomes are definitely in play.
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, the most senior MP running for TTH, is also the frontrunner, according to Labour.
Labour’s Māori strategist Willie Jackson told the NZ Herald, “Te Pāti Māori are favoured in two electorates [Waiariki and Te Tai Hauāuru] but I’m not saying they’re going to win them.”
This is not just a strategy to light a fire under Labour voters – Ngarewa-Packer has learned significantly from her 2020 campaign and has grown in profile over a parliamentary term, where she has been a high-profile and successful critic of the Labour Party.
“Our work to represent the people of Te Tai Hauāuru has never stopped, and as a list MP I have already been able to make progress on our kaupapa such as healthcare, seabed mining, Māori wards, inequality, racism, housing and freshwater,” Ngarewa-Packer said during her campaign launch at Rātana.
“I’m proud to once again have the faith of my electorate and party to fly the flag in Te Tai Hauāuru on behalf of our unapologetic Māori movement and alongside what will be a formidable team of Te Pāti Māori candidates across Aotearoa.”
This is awkward. Not just because Ngarewa-Packer has been so vocally critical of Labour, but because by announcing her candidacy at Rātana she unintentionally (or potentially intentionally) started her campaign in Labour candidate Soraya Peke-Mason’s rohe, in front of the church she was raised in and is still an active member of today.
Ngarewa-Packer is also a whanaunga of Te Iwi Mōrehu, as am I, so it’s maybe less of a slight than a celebration of the Rātana movement and its legacy.
Regardless, Peke-Mason shouldn’t be daunted by being considered the challenger. She is well-known and established across the electorate, as is the Labour machine she has inherited from her whanaunga Adrian Rurawhe, the incumbent who, after becoming speaker of the house, made the call to run list-only. Peke-Mason spent 18 years on the Rangitīkei District Council, led her iwi Ngāti Rangi through post-Treaty settlement, and has been in parliament for 11 months as a list MP (she came in mid-term after the departure of Kris Faafoi and Trevor Mallard).
She is also running on an all-or-nothing campaign, removing herself from the Labour Party list so she can argue that, while Ngarewa-Packer will get back into parliament if TPM wins another seat and gets an achievable number of party votes, if you want both fierce wāhine in parliament, you will need to vote for her.
She told RNZ: “I’m committed to winning the seat of Te Tai Hauāuru. I’m focused on kaupapa Māori policies, and we’ve done a lot of work already and that work isn’t finished yet. So I’m keen and passionate about doing that and continuing on with that work that we’ve done. To do that, I’ll be working hard to represent and to win the seat of Te Tai Hauāuru.”
The third candidate in the mix is Harete Hipango, who is standing for National for the first time in a Māori seat. Hipango held the general seat of Whanganui from 2017 to 2020 before losing it during a so-called “red wave”, which gave many marginal seats back to Labour.
Hipango has highlighted National’s record number of Treaty settlements and support for kaupapa Maori initiatives like te kōhanga reo movement and Māori broadcasting.
She also has the support of her whanaunga, beloved former MP for TTH Dame Tariana Turia of Te Pāti Māori. While this sounds incredibly impressive, on analysing Turia’s words it feels a little more like a gracious wahine wanting to be supportive of her relation to avoid awkwardness during whānau gatherings.
Hipango is a sitting list MP, but her name recognition is lacking compared to Peke-Mason and Ngarewa-Packer, and National has only just started campaigning for the Māori seats again so its campaign machine is much weaker than it would be in a general electorate.
While Māori women have found success within the National Party, none have done so while representing a Māori seat or even a predominantly Māori electorate. This isn’t the electorate to change that – it is rural, which should help, but it is also quite working class and does not benefit from large vote-buying infrastructure projects which tend to go towards big cities.
All of this points to TTH being Ngarewa-Packer’s to lose. While not the founder, as Turia was, Ngarewa-Packer has changed the image of Te Pāti Maori to something much closer to her personal politics and brand. Her force of will and vision for TPM as a party for the working class and disenfranchised is powerful in an electorate where the average salary is $20k lower than the national average.
Peke-Mason still has a chance – she’s run here before and is well known – but she is hamstrung by her connection to an unpopular government and an opponent who can campaign on radical change from what the Labour Party, of which she is a low-ranking member, can offer.
She has been a loyal member of the Labour Party – whether it has been as loyal to her is debatable. Just as well we Māori love a good kōrero.