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Te Tai Tokerau (Image: Archi Banal)
Te Tai Tokerau (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsSeptember 26, 2023

It’s the tail that directs the fish: The political heft of Te Tai Tokerau

Te Tai Tokerau (Image: Archi Banal)
Te Tai Tokerau (Image: Archi Banal)

Will Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis retain his grip on the northernmost Māori electorate, or will strategic voting see a new name follow in the footsteps of Matiu Rata and Hone Harawira as a strong Māori voice for Te Tai Tokerau?

Read the other battleground electorate profiles in our Hot Seats series here.

Some elders in the north say that when the tail of the fish moves, the rest of the fish is not lacking direction. Although the head of Te Ika a Māui is in Wellington, it can only go where the tail allows. This whakataukī encapsulates the symbiotic relationship between Wellington’s heart of political decision-making and the significant influence of regions like Te Tai Tokerau.

Despite Northland often being labelled the poorest region in Aotearoa due to socioeconomic metrics, its political history and influence are profound. All principal signatories of He Whakaputanga o Te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni were from Te Tai Tokerau. The country’s first capital was Okiato, near Russell. The region remains central to debates about Māori rights, particularly in discussions surrounding Te Tiriti. The Māori land march began in Te Hāpua and Ngāpuhi stands as the largest iwi in the country. The region’s leadership in environmental initiatives, rooted in a Māori perspective that stresses kaitiakitanga, has often paved the way for broader environmental conversations nationwide

In Te Hiku, locals often ask, “Is the gorge open?” This refers to the frequently obstructed Mangamuka Gorge and, recently, the Brynderwyns, where State Highway One was shut after Cyclone Gabrielle’s onslaught. Such transportation hindrances underscore the region’s drive for greater autonomy. Investments through the Provincial Growth Fund and Cyclone Relief Fund aim to address this, promoting sectors beyond traditional tourism, pine and honey industries. The Kaipara Moana’s ecological restoration, with a staggering $750 million investment, offers fresh career avenues, transforming former loggers into tree planters.

Over the years, the electorate of Te Tai Tokerau has sent strong Māori voices to Wellington, voices that have often played crucial roles in policy discussions affecting Māori communities. One such voice is Hone Harawira, a prominent Māori rights advocate and founder of the Mana Movement, who represented Te Tai Tokerau for three terms in parliament from 2005, before losing the seat to the incumbent Kelvin Davis.

Another famed figure is Matiu Rata, who represented Northern Māori, the precursor to Te Tai Tokerau, in parliament from 1963 to 1980, and who holds the distinction of being both the inaugural Māori minister of lands and the first Māori minister of Māori affairs as part of the 1972 Labour government. Rata amplified the prominence of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Waitangi Day, increased government expenditure on housing and education, and kickstarted crucial steps towards the safeguarding and acknowledgment of Māori language and culture. Among his enduring legacies, the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal stands out as Rata’s most consequential and enduring contribution to the political tapestry of Aotearoa.

Matiu Rata in 1970 and Hone Harawira in 2014 (Photos: Getty Images)

In 2014, Kelvin Davis took over from Hone Harawira as the MP for Te Tai Tokerau. While both have been influential in voicing the concerns of the Māori community, their political trajectories, affiliations and some of their stances show distinct differences. Davis is generally perceived as a moderate, working collaboratively within the parliamentary system, and has a background in education. In contrast, Harawira, initially from the Māori Party and later founder of the Mana Movement, is known for his more radical stance and confrontational style, with a history of activism for Māori rights. The ousting of Hone Harawira was blamed on a few factors, including his relationship with Kim Dotcom, a billionaire who is continuing to battle against the FBI in court, and the split of the vote between Harawira and Māori Party candidate Te Hira Paenga.

While his 2014 victory over Harawira was by a slim margin, Davis won the seat comfortably in both 2017 and 2020, gaining over 50% of the vote each time. This year, many in the electorate feel as though Davis, now with three terms under his belt, has had ample time to prove his worth to the notoriously hard-to-please Te Tai Tokerau constituents. The deputy leader of the Labour Party is claiming that since taking office, Labour has improved rehabilitation rates in prisons, there are fewer Māori children under the control of Oranga Tamariki, pay parity has been achieved for kohanga reo kaiako plus other improvements in the education sector, and there is increased accountability from government agencies to Māori. Although he is guaranteed a seat in the next parliament as he is number two on Labour’s list, Davis is still eager to see Te Tai Tokerau stay red as it has traditionally done.

Kelvin Davis, the incumbent (Photo: Getty Images)

The upcoming election sees a diverse roster of candidates for the Te Tai Tokerau seat. Te Rūnanga Nui o Te Aupōuri chief executive Mariameno Kapa-Kingi, of Te Pāti Māori, is running for the second election in a row after being runner-up to Davis in 2020. Kapa-Kingi, whose son Eru sits just two spots below her at number nine on the list of Te Pāti Māori, has decades of experience in iwi social services and governance, and recently led the development of a 16-house papakāinga in Te Kao.

Mariameno Kapa Kingi, Te Pāti Māori candidate for Te Tai Tokerau

While in 2020, the first election in which he wasn’t competing against Harawira, Davis received more than twice as many votes as Kapa-Kingi, many will be predicting she increases her share of votes this year. Davis is likely to feel the effects of a nationwide turn against Labour, and in an election where anti-Māori sentiment has been simmering, voters in the Māori seats are expected to turn out for Te Pāti Māori candidates like Kapa-Kingi in greater numbers in an attempt to counter it.

Entering the fray for the first time and a potential dark horse is the Green Party’s candidate Hūhana Lyndon, who is the chief executive of the Ngātiwai Trust Board. Lyndon, who has a diverse career portfolio in health, education and primary industries at operational and governance levels. She has stood twice in local government elections and says her focus will be on constitutional transformation by implementing Matike Mai, climate change adaptation planning with hapū and iwi of Te Tai Tokerau, and sustainable economic development via significant investment in infrastructure. At number 10 on the Green Party list, on current polling she’s likely to make it into parliament.

Other candidates running in Te Tai Tokerau include the co-leader of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, Maki Herbert. Herbert, who is running for the third time, is from Pawarenga, a small Māori town on the southern side of the Whangapē Harbour, and is currently living in Mangamuka. Running for the second straight time is independent Paturiri Toautu, who previously stood under the name Moemoea Mohoawhenua. Also once known as Benjamin Nathan, Toautu gained media attention in 1997 for smashing the America’s Cup with a sledgehammer and again late last year when he organised a protest against the karakia ban at Kaipara District Council. In 2020, he received less than 1% of the vote. One name missing from this year’s ballot is conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika, who received nearly 5% of the vote in Te Tai Tokerau in 2020 when he stood for the now defunct Public Party, which he led. Earlier this month, Te Kahika was convicted of electoral fraud for failing to declare candidate donations and keep records. He is yet to be sentenced.

Spanning from Te Rerenga Wairua at the northernmost point of Te Ika a Māui to Devonport on the North Shore and Te Henga on Tāmaki Makaurau’s west coast, the electorate’s diversity poses challenges for candidates. With a significant portion of its voters based in urban areas like Tāmaki Makaurau and Whangārei, aligning policies to resonate with both rural and urban constituents is a complex task.

Intriguingly, both Davis and Lyndon are likely to secure parliamentary seats even if they don’t win their electorates due to their high placement on their respective party lists. This presents an opportunity for strategic voting, potentially seeing all major candidates representing Te Tai Tokerau in parliament.

The political landscape of Te Tai Tokerau is as varied and rich as its storied history. From ancient proverbs that embody the essence of regional influence to the ever-evolving political dynamics of the present, this electorate serves as a microcosm of Aotearoa’s broader political and cultural tapestry. As candidates bring forward diverse visions, it’s clear that Te Tai Tokerau remains a linchpin in shaping New Zealand’s future. Amid the complexities of strategic voting, the true power lies in the hands of the constituents. As the ancient wisdom suggests, while the head may guide, it’s the tail that determines the direction. The upcoming elections will undoubtedly further etch Te Tai Tokerau’s significance in the annals of Aotearoa’s political narrative.

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