It’s been a whirlwind three months for political newcomer Cushla Tangaere-Manuel, who’s trying to maintain Labour’s stronghold over Ikaroa-Rāwhiti. Charlotte Muru-Lanning joins her on the campaign trail – and at a nightclub covers gig – in Gisborne.
Pink and blue strobe lights pirouette around the otherwise dark room as a multiplying crowd settles into the roomy dance floor at Sugar Nightclub – Gisborne’s one and only nightclub.
On one side of the room, Long White, Smirnoff and Corona bottles clink across the bar. On the other, the DJ’s resonating playlist competes with excited chatter. But as the clock strikes 7pm, the music is turned down, and the microphone is passed to Labour’s Ikaroa-Rāwhiti candidate Cushla Tangaere-Manuel.
Placing a plastic glass of sauvignon blanc down on the bar leaner, Tangaere-Manuel takes her place on the open dance floor. Less than two weeks out from election day, in what could be a tight race, this might seem like a wonderfully tactical campaign stop: a beholden crowd, a jovial atmosphere and a unique setting to boot. But tonight this candidate isn’t here to politick – well, not explicitly at least – she’s here to sing.
In between other headliners for this covers gig called “Groove Night”, she belts out ‘Just an Illusion’, ‘Children of Israel’, and then, near the end of the night, her specialty, Amy Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’. When she committed to the gig, she was “just Cushla” not “candidate Cushla”, she explains. It’s not surprising she has prior commitments when you consider that the first-time candidate only announced she would be contesting the seat three months ago. Since then, life has been a “whirlwind” for Tangaere-Manuel and her whānau with near round-the-clock campaigning. “It’s quite weird to be relaxing,” she says as her husband Russell sets down a round of drinks on the table.
Tangaere-Manuel’s road to the political scene hasn’t exactly been conventional. After Meka Whaitiri unexpectedly defected to Te Pāti Māori in May, having served as the Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti for a decade, speculation bubbled around who would replace her.
Born in Te Puia Springs and raised “by the village” in Tikitiki in the uppermost part of the electorate, Tangaere-Manuel spent a decade as CEO of Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby Union and until recently, was New Zealand Rugby’s Māori rugby programme manager. A call from Labour to her home in Rangitukia led to an announcement in late June that Tangaere-Manuel would be standing for the seat. She’s one of four Labour electorate candidates who have decided to remain off the party list, hoping her own ties with the community, along with the currency of the Labour Party in the electorate, will see voters choose her over seasoned politician Whaitiri – who is standing again for the seat, only now with her new party. “People go ‘oh, you’re new to politics’,” Tangaere-Manuel says. But she counters: “I grew up in the house of parliament for Hinepare Marae: hapū politics and iwi politics.”
In fact, when Tangaere-Manuel received the phone call earlier this year asking her to pick up the candidacy, it wasn’t the first time she’d been asked to run by Labour, but it was the first time she’d said yes. When Tangaere-Manuel was in her early 20s, Labour’s Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP Parekura Horomia had asked her to consider running for the party – her family had long ties with Labour and with the man himself, who was minister of Māori Affairs in Helen Clark’s government from 2000 to 2008 – but the timing wasn’t right, she says. Since then Tangaere-Manuel’s career has been varied; she’s worked as a reporter for Marae and a kōhanga reo kaiako, as well as holding the high-profile rugby roles, and she currently serves on boards for Kura Kaupapa Māori, iwi radio and the NZ Amateur Sports Association.
Extending almost 600km from the top of the East Cape southwards to the Wellington region, and including Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, most of the Hutt Valley and Wainuiomata, the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti electorate is extremely long – to drive from one end to the other takes more than 10 hours. If voters follow Whaitiri to Te Pāti Māori, she will be the first non-Labour MP in the electorate’s 24-year history – it’s been held by Labour since it was formed in 1999; first by East Coast stalwart Horomia until his death in 2013, and since then, by Whaitiri.
So far, it looks like voter loyalty to Labour – which many attribute to the mighty legacy of Horomia in the electorate – overrides loyalty to the long-serving MP. Recent polling by Whakaata Māori has put Tangaere-Manuel at an eight-point lead over Whaitiri, with Tangaere-Manuel at 33% and Whaitiri on 25%. Tangaere-Manuel has also had backing from Heather Te Au Skipworth, who was originally set to contest the seat for Te Pāti Maori but was relegated to make room for Whaitiri. However, things are far from set in stone, as 29% of those polled were undecided.
Tangaere-Manuel has been tackling the massive electorate in her campaign campervan, accompanied by her husband. There are challenges that come with making yourself recognisable in such an immense seat in such a short amount of time – and in an electorate which had only 67% voter turnout in the last election, being present is vital. Labour loyalty comes in handy of course, but there’s a necessity in showing up, even if just for five minutes – because if you don’t, she explains, it’s noted.
Ten years is a long time to build a relationship with an electorate, and that is what Tangaere-Manuel needs to overcome. “There has been some apprehension in some of the places I’ve been to,” she says. “But every time I’ve left, the mood has changed, people have options and they’re taking me seriously.”
While the electorate itself may be narrow, the issues in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti are far from it. “It’s a diverse line and it’s been important for everyone to know that I understand that they’re all unique, they’ve all got iwi, hapū, communities, diversity and mana motuhake,” says Tangaere-Manuel.
The impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle, the growing tensions surrounding the forestry industry and ongoing issues surrounding housing, cost of living and inequality (among Māori electorates, in the 2018 census Ikaroa-Rāwhiti ranked highest for the share of people on Jobseeker Support, at 18%) form a foundational web of issues that its next representative will need to be up for. When Tangaere-Manuel speaks of these issues, both specific to the electorate and shared with the rest of the country, it becomes apparent that the appeal of being an MP for her isn’t so tied up in strict political ideology, and rather about being a kind of steadfast vessel for what her constituents need. “The key message I’m hearing is they want to be heard, have a voice, they want to be involved in the design and the delivery,” she says. “No matter what we’re talking about, really, what people are saying to me is they want to be heard and they want to be decision makers.”
As she jumps from town to town, kōhanga to church, tāngihanga to RSA, social housing development to high schools along the campaign trail, she’s regularly been joined by fellow Labour candidate Tāmati Coffey, who is contesting the overlapping general electoral East Coast seat, and shares a relatively short-notice campaign period (Coffey announced his candidacy a month after Tangaere-Manuel, following incumbent Kiri Allan’s departure). Having an experienced candidate on her side has been useful, she says, especially when it comes to the juggle of campaign diary commitments, travel time, brushing up on policy and, at best, a few hours of sleep.
In Gisborne at least, it seems Tangaere-Manuel’s capacity for getting out and about in the electorate and adeptness for conveying policy and commitments in ways she knows her community understands is paying off. Jaunty posters printed with “Push for Cush” (her newly-adopted campaign slogan) are ubiquitous across the town, and for someone completely new to campaigning, a surprising amount of people seem to recognise her. Following her Saturday night gig, two kuia at a karaoke bar across from the nightclub even dedicate a passionate rendition of ‘Moonlighting’ by Ardijah to Tangaere-Manuel’s campaign.
Following her defection from Labour, Whaitiri told Breakfast, “I didn’t feel I was heard [in Labour]. I’ve now joined the party where I know my voice, and those I represent will be heard.” But from how Tangaere-Manuel sees it, question marks remain. “Everyone who has spoken to me has no understanding of the ‘why’,” she says. “Those are conversations obviously [Whaitiri is] going to have to have on the ground.” And while the jumping ship by Whaitiri from the party has only fuelled the narrative of a repressed Māori caucus in Labour, Tangaere-Manuel is unfazed, and a little annoyed. “I haven’t liked some of the things I’ve seen out there, saying that Labour’s Māori caucus are the puppets of Pākehā,” she says. “I’m not a puppet.”
While Tangaere-Manuel wears a lot of red these days, her wardrobe has typically been sky blue – the allegiance colours for Ngāti Porou (in fact, red is unfortunately the colour of their rugby team’s closest competition). Because of her roots in her hometown Tikitiki and her Ngāti Porou whakapapa, she’s been at pains to reassure those outside her immediate hapū, iwi and community that her loyalty is to the whole electorate, not just her own. “I’m here to serve all of Ikaroa-Rāwhiti,” she says. “My iwi has been cheering me on for my whole life, but also if I let them down, if I let my people down, if I don’t do this job well and serve everyone well, I’m a disgrace to Rangitukia and Ngāti Porou – people have received that message.”