She’s a lone wolf, a team player, a rebel, a leader and the nicest lady around. But what combination of those do you need to survive in government?
On a cold July morning, I found myself driving around Tōtara Park in Manurewa in the dark. I had been invited to a dawn karakia to launch Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson’s new kaupapa Māori election campaign. “Tōtara park” was the only instruction I’d been given and in the darkness of Redoubt Rd, Clendon commuter traffic up my bum and the sun still half an hour away from rising, Google maps was failing to help me find an entrance.
I gave up and headed back to town in nose-to-tail traffic to await my sit-down with Davidson at the Greens Auckland central HQ, about a minute from my house. I kicked around the building’s lobby, where there is nowhere to sit, and tried to suppress the feeling of resentment that I could have slept in approximately three hours longer. Then Davidson’s EA messaged to say they’d be late. I was not happy.
A van pulled up about 40 minutes later. Davidson, like a rainbow rolling out of a people mover, scooped me into a hug, Against my will all ill-feeling melted away.
I’ve heard Davidson described as the nicest person in New Zealand politics. Is it niceness? I’m not sure. She’s a pain in the arse to the major parties, and will often be found outside parliament receiving the various petitions and hīkoi criticising the actions of the Crown. It’s not politeness, as evidenced by a very public reclamation of the c-word (no, I don’t mean Covid) which saw a number of MPs clutching their pearls in horror in 2018. But, whatever your politics, you can’t deny there’s a palpable warmth. She’s like a human manifestation of ahi kaa, the home fires. But the question remains: is she ruthless enough?
In 2017 Davidson finished third in Tāmaki Makaurau with 21.58% of the vote. This time she has launched a serious bid to enter parliament as an electorate MP – and, she hopes, a cabinet minister in a Labour-Green government. Her two-tick campaign has received the full backing of the party, an exception to the usual rule that Greens only actively seek the party vote, she told me as we settled in with a cup of tea. “I heard on my shoulder, Māori saying, ‘if you don’t go seriously for this seat, are you giving the respect that this seat deserves?’” she said.
“Tāmaki Makuarau has never had a wahine and I thought, we’ve got an opportunity so we’re gonna go for it. And coming through lockdown and resetting our imaginations, we thought wāhine Māori is something we can lean into.”
She laid out the new framework for her campaign, starting with the dawn ceremony I missed.
“It always starts with a woman’s voice. Nothing starts until you hear the call from our wāhine. I led karanga, which surprised me with how emotionally grounding that was. We had the birds just waking and joining in, we had the flow of the water and it was still dark, and I let my voice out there and whaddya know? Papatūānuku came up through my feet and decided that I would have a tangi as well.”
She laughed again, perhaps a little embarrassed about crying in front of her supporters. “Kei te pai, I thought, I’m not the boss. We’ll just let the tangi flow with the karanga, kei te pai.”
The rest of the rollout also follows marae kawa. The next phase is whaikōrero, she explained. “That’s me sharing and meeting with people and having kōrero. I was at the Unite workplace speaking with the delegates there, and I will go anywhere and meet with whānau anywhere.
“After whaikōrero is hariru. Hariru for my campaign is going to be making sure people are ready to go into the next phase. Meeting people and asking, are they ready to vote? Making sure they know where to vote, and how to vote.”
She laughed at my surprised exclamation of “How many people are you going to feed?”
“As many as we have to! As is tikanga. It will be a time for whoever to share kai.”
We support many of the same causes and I’m accustomed to seeing Marama either holding a protest sign or networking with Māori leaders at hui about serious social issues. Women and children are a top priority.
“Māori women have always led at the frontline of our kaupapa and our movements, that’s just how it’s always been, from Papatūānuku,” she said. “And we wanted to acknowledge it’s Māori who also have the solutions. That is where enduring solutions lie, with the collective of wāhine Māori. I have been very vocal that we should not be separating our babies from their māmā. We should be providing support.”
That Māori have solutions to many of the issues that plague us, notably around issues with Oranga Tamariki’s removal of children, is an idea she returned to often.
“We have had whāngai as a tool for hundreds of years, we’re still doing that. I’m surrounded by people who understand collective responsibility. But the Crown can give more support and resource for kaupapa Māori solutions. I’ve seen solutions around the country, I’ve visited whare where we can keep our babies and mama together. So that’s an example of how Māori women on the frontline have those solutions.”
Can that commitment to a disruptor, outsider status survive once further inside the halls of power? If Davidson is successful in sitting around the cabinet table, she will in effect embody the Crown she has so often stood against. I raise the absurdity of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau marching alongside climate protesters last year, essentially protesting himself.
“I struggle with that every day – I’m not an electorate MP, I’m not even a minister, but I am a representative of the Crown, and a representative of the systemic racism and Te Tiriti injustice. I’ve always been really clear that that conflict is an everyday issue.
“But there’s no point in me sacrificing time away from my whānau unless I continue to do what I was put there to do, which is to represent the voices on the ground who feel like they are disconnected from power.”
It’s hard not to feel worried for Davidson. A recent panel for the Child Poverty Action Group saw her speak alongside the minister for social development, Carmel Sepuloni, Māori Party co-leader John Tamihere, TOP co-leader Shai Navot and NZ First candidate Robert Gore about possible solutions to child poverty. She spoke quietly and read from her notes, in contrast to other speakers like Tamihere, who spoke without notes and argued passionately for whānau empowerment. But here, in person, she is animated and articulate. She shares an experience, values and aspirations with many Māori women across the country.
On Monday she goes head to head with the other Tāmaki candidates, Peeni Henare and John Tamihere, in a debate at the University of Auckland. If the full rainbow works its magic on Māori swing voters, she could yet rattle the status quo again.