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Tāmati Coffey (Image: Tina Tiller)
Tāmati Coffey (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsOctober 12, 2023

Can Tāmati Coffey make an East Coast comeback?

Tāmati Coffey (Image: Tina Tiller)
Tāmati Coffey (Image: Tina Tiller)

Just months after announcing he was retiring from politics, Labour MP Tāmati Coffey made a last-minute decision to mount a return. Charlotte Muru-Lanning joins Coffey on his campaign to secure the East Coast seat.

When Labour MP Tāmati Coffey announced in March that he would be retiring from politics at the election, after two terms in government, it was prompted by the birth of Coffey and his husband’s second child. After spending six weeks at home on parental leave with their new baby, Coffey found himself imagining a life centred around raising a family rather than the pressures of the Beehive. “I started getting a bit philosophical,” he says now.

Coffey wasn’t the first in his party to reevaluate their political career this year. In January, then prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced she would be standing down after five-and-a-half years in the role, saying she “no longer had enough left in the tank to do the job justice”. It was a similar, though not identical, story for Coffey. “It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have gas in the tank, it was that I wanted to use my gas for my kids and I just started thinking, for the gas that you use on politics, imagine if you just used that on your kids.”

But Coffey’s plans for a life of domesticity were dashed just four months after his resignation by one of the more dismal moments in politics this year. In July, the East Coast electorate MP Kiritapu Allan, who had often been described as a future prime minister, announced she would be stepping down at this year’s election after crashing her ministerial car and later being arrested in relation to the incident. In an Instagram post the day following her resignation, Allan said she had “failed” all those who had put their trust and confidence in her. “Being the representative for the East Coast has been the greatest privilege of my life. But my actions have let everyone down.”

A week after Allan’s announcement, Coffey, who is the biological father of Allan’s daughter, reversed his resignation and said he would stand in the seat in her place – with just three months until the election. “The tragic events of last week which led to my colleague and friend Kiritapu Allan choosing to step down at the upcoming election have changed things significantly,” he said in his July announcement. “The East Coast has been through so much this year and it needs an experienced champion in parliament.”

Coffey’s campaign office in central Gisborne (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

The East Coast electorate which Coffey is contesting is immense, the largest by area of all the North Island general electorates. It stretches from Maketū in the west across the whole eastern Bay of Plenty, around the East Cape and down to Gisborne. It’s also significantly Māori, with 51.5% of the population of Māori whakapapa – the highest among all 65 general electorates. 

Since its modern iteration came into being in 1999, the East Coast electorate has been held by both the major parties. Labour’s Janet Mackey held the seat from 1999 to 2005, then National’s Anne Tolley held it for 15 years until her retirement in 2020. At the 2020 election, as part of the red wave across the country which saw 11 of 26 rural electorates flipped from National to Labour, Kiri Allan took the seat with a majority (51.7%) of the votes against National’s candidate Tania Tapsell. 

With Tapsell now mayor of Rotorua, for this election National has put forward Dana Kirkpatrick, an ex-communications professional and first-time political candidate. While Kirkpatrick has far less of a public profile than Coffey and no previous experience in politics, with National well ahead of Labour in general polling, she does have the party advantage. Neither Kirkpatrick nor Coffey, at number 46 and 36 on their respective parties’ lists, are likely to make it to parliament without winning the seat.

“We’re not riding the red wave this election,” Coffey admits, with some understatement. “I come with experience, I come with my own whakapapa, versus someone who is quite new. Many voters don’t even know who Dana is, and that’s her challenge.” There have been some signs of light for Coffey’s campaign though, with this week’s One News’ Vote Compass reflecting a slight shift to the left in the electorate compared to three years ago.

(Screenshot: Instagram)

In what was a slightly unorthodox move, on Wednesday this week, with four days to go until polling day, Coffey posted to Instagram a picture at a cafe with ex-Green Party MP Elizabeth Kerekere. Alongside the image was a caption urging people planning to vote for the Green Party candidate Jordan Walker to instead choose Coffey to avoid splitting the left vote. “Jordan is [not] seeking the candidate vote in the [East Coast] seat this election,” the caption read. “We [both] want those in the East Coast electorate to know, that if they want a progressive local MP for East Coast, they should give their candidate vote to me, Tamati Coffey”. It’s a message that Walker seemed to endorse on their own Instagram page. 

Coffey was born in Upper Hutt to Gerald (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Awa) and Rangi (Ngāti Whakaue, Tūhourangi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa). Both his parents were factory workers, union reps and staunch Labour voters. “I’ve got some colleagues who are like, ‘David Lange used to come around for cups of tea with my dad’,” Coffey says with a laugh. “We never had any of that stuff but because of their work in the unions, we only ever voted Labour.” After high school, Coffey moved north to study political science at the University of Auckland but took a detour which led him down a decade-long high-profile career in television on programmes like What Now and Breakfast. In 2013, he signed up for the Labour Party and stood unsuccessfully in the Rotorua electorate in the 2014 election – he wasn’t high enough on Labour’s list to make it into parliament. 

In 2017, he won the Waiariki Māori electorate but in 2020, Coffey lost it to Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rāwiri Waititi by just 836 votes. He made it back into parliament on the list, however. 

It’s 9.20am at the palm tree-lined Kaiti Shopping Centre in Gisborne, the most populous urban centre in the largely rural East Coast electorate. With the morning sun blazing above, one by one, workers in hi-vis or office attire stroll into the strip mall’s bakery and exit with pies, hot chips, canned drinks, glad-wrapped sandwiches and loaves of their famous pre-sliced rēwena bread. Perched on a bench outside, Coffey is snacking on a piece of battered fish from the bakery and cradling a loaf of rēwena bread while waiting to cast his vote at the local polling booth, due to open at 10am. It’s the first day of early voting, and marks just 13 days till polling day. 

In between bites of fish and chatting with his campaign team, Coffey chats with numerous locals declaring their support: some call out from their cars as they arrive in the carpark, while others stop for a moment to chat while wandering past. “You’ve got my vote, boy,” says one man as he walks towards the laundromat. “Thank you my bro,” Coffey responds. Most seem to recognise him from his six years as a politician, but potentially even more seem to know him from his past life in television. 

Coffey with his rēwena and deep-fried fish at Kaiti Mall in Gisborne (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

While he’s spent the last few months cajoling members of the public to vote for him, ironically, Coffey didn’t even vote for himself today. Partly a symptom of his last-minute candidacy, he’s still on the Māori roll and enrolled in his previous electorate, so his vote went to Toni Boynton, Labour’s Waiariki candidate.  

After casting his vote, Coffey is on the road again to join deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni and fellow local candidate Cushla Tangaere-Manuel, who is contesting the overlapping Ikaroa-Rāwhiti seat. They make multiple stops, and the constant movement from one appointment to the next seems to be the way of a campaign with this much urgency. The back of Coffey’s car is strewn with evidence of someone balancing politicking with parenting: there are papers, a Woody doll, picture books stuffed behind the seats, a kōwhaiwhai tie, a single tiny sock, spare jackets and a white paper bag filled with lollipops. While on the road, Coffey’s campaign manager picks up a call from “Mama Mina”, the owner of a local diary – a staunch Labour supporter who has been helping to fuel his campaign in her own unique way: donations of homemade dhal and paratha which have become a staple of Coffey’s campaign diet. Mama Mina wants to know if he wants to eat today and if so, when. “The Labour Party has never been the party of big financial donors,” says Coffey. “But we’ve got hearty people on the ground that will cook a curry or will come in and make the cups of teas.” Unfortunately, today’s schedule doesn’t leave a lot of room to stop for Mama Mina’s homemade lunch.

First stop is a Sāmoan Methodist church to encourage members to vote, then to a kōhanga reo to hear from advocates for better disability resourcing. From there, he takes the scenic route – past the newly opened skate park and public pools that are products of the provincial growth fund, and then a catering business which pumps out thousands of meals each day for the free school lunch scheme – to Leader Brand, a local fruit and vegetable producer that employs hundreds of locals whose top concern is around road access for distribution of their produce. After that, a cup of tea at a local charity providing essentials for new parents. It’s all just a small taste of the colourful breadth that could make up Coffey’s work if he is crowned the local MP.

Tāmati Coffey alongside deputy prime minister Carmel Sepuloni and Ikaroa-Rāwhiti candidate Cushla Tangaere-Manuel. (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

And it certainly wouldn’t be an easy gig. Pre-existing issues within communities in the electorate were only exacerbated this year when Cyclone Gabrielle wreaked havoc across the East Coast in February: homes were destroyed, communities cut off and infrastructure and roading across the electorate was damaged. Nine months later, the recovery drags on. High on Coffey’s priorities is a commitment to recovery within the region, “while also preparing itself for future resilience in connectivity, roads and infrastructure”, he says. He sees primary industries like forestry, fisheries, farming and horticulture as the sectors which “form the backbone of the East Coast economy”. 

His previous experience as a local MP has coloured how he thinks about what the role takes, he says. “The job of a local MP is actually just to get out there and hustle,” says Coffey. “You have to hustle and you have to be prepared to work with politicians across the aisle, you have to be prepared to step back if maybe you’re not the best person to front things and be prepared to do whatever it takes to get the money to enable things to happen. You’ve got to be the best advocate.” 

Returning to the world of politics, especially knowing the pressure that would accompany a truncated campaign, wasn’t an easy decision. “It was a reversal and a backtrack on something that I thought I was certain about,” he says. “Suddenly, I was going to the family and saying, ‘hey, you know how we made that group decision, are we cool to open that conversation up again?’”

When he initially broached the possibility of making a return with whānau, Coffey says he was met only with support – his husband Tim Smith even chimed in that the original decision to leave might have been “a bit premature”, and as for his mum Rangi, “she thinks I’m far too young to be even using the word retirement”. While they currently live in Rotorua (outside the electorate), they’ll move to Gisborne if Coffey wins the seat. What’s made the return palatable so far is that on the campaign trail, he is often with his husband and their children Tūtānekai and Taitimu in tow – along with Smith’s mother, who helps with childcare.

Coffey makes an order with his husband at Kaiti Mall (Photo: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

Beyond gaining the blessing of his own family, and in among the spectacle surrounding Kiri Allan’s arrest and wellbeing, Coffey ensured Allan at the very least had a heads up about his intentions. “It was so tense at the time and it all happened really quickly,” he says. Allan’s accident happened on a Sunday, and Coffey was notified on Monday that he had until Friday to put his nomination in. “I decided that I was going to do it and so I sent her a message saying, ‘hey, just so you know, I’m gonna put my nomination in tonight and you’re one of the only people outside of my family that I’m telling. I’ve got no expectation that you’d be out there on the campaign trail with me. I’m just trying to deliver us a Labour government after October 14, as you would have been trying to do if you were still here. So I’m stepping in, sending you big love and obviously if you can help, let us know but no expectation’. 

“She messaged back and she was like, ‘go for gold bro’.”

Coffey is keenly aware of the unique hold Allan had across much of the electorate. She was held in high regard among even the most unlikely Labour voters within the electorate. Not only had Allan contested the seat once before in 2017 before she managed to take it on her second attempt, she was from the electorate, and had worked within it for years. “This was somebody who was deemed to be a powerhouse and future leader of the Labour Party, who was earning her stripes and solidifying this as a Labour seat after many years of being held as a National seat,” he says.

While Coffey has never lived within the electorate, his links with it are strong. He points to his work as MP for Waiariki as a link to the region. “I cut my teeth travelling around the eastern Bay of Plenty region which covers half the East Coast general seat,” he says. “I know this area, I’m connected to it and I know the issues already.” Even more, his grandmother Lucy was born and bred in Tolaga Bay, which links his whānau to the late Parekura Horomia, long-time Labour minister and beloved East Coast stalwart. “My whakapapa connects me to the region,” he says. “My connection is deep.”

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