Meka Whaitiri and Maori Party co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer at Waipatu Marae, Hastings, for the announcement that Whaitiri was joining the Maori Party

In public, Meka Whatiri’s departure from Labour sparked constitutional confusion and widespread claims of surprise.

Standing back — which Labour MPs were not quite ready to do yesterday —it looks likely to be a positive for the centre-left block in Parliament with a stronger Maori Party ready to go into a future Labour-led government.

But first, the confusion needed to be sorted out, and the bruised egos soothed.

The confusion has been sorted with the discovery of a loophole which renders the waka-jumping legislation virtually redundant.

The egos have not been so quickly assuaged with even the Prime Minister still not having heard from Whaitiri by late last night.

Though she has told the public and media that she has left Labour for the Maori Party, the Speaker, Adrian Ruawhe, told Parliament she had advised him only that she wished her proxy vote to be withdrawn from Labour and for it to be cast by her as an independent.

That meant she avoided having to resign as an MP under the waka jumping legislation.

The saga began on Tuesday night with a report on Te Ao Maori news speculating that Whaitiri was to leave Labour for the Maori Party.

Senior members of Labour’s Maori Caucus could not contact Whaitiri, so it was agreed to send East Coast MP, Kiri Allan, Whaitiri’s former partner, to try and find her because she knew her way around places in the Hawkes Bay where Whaitiri might be.

“I think it was something that we all felt was important to touch base with a senior colleague who been a part of our whanau, the Labour whanau, for a long time,” Allan told reporters back in Wellington yesterday afternoon.

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“That’s how we do things. It’s a mana thing. kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face). That was why we chose to engage in that way.

“And why me? Well, we’ve known each other for a very long time.”

When she did catch up with her yesterday morning, Allan asked her whether she was sure about what she was doing.

Whaitiri replied, asking Allan if she wanted to join the Maori Party, but Allan didn’t read anything into that.

“I think it was more of a bit of a giggle than anything else at the end of that discussion.”

Allan returned to Wellington where no one at the top of Labour, including the Prime Minister, was any the wiser about why Whaitiri was leaving.

Her own press conference at her iwi Ngāti Kahungungu’s Waipatu Marae in Hastings offered few clues.

She drew on the history of the marae and its association with Kotahitanga (the Maori Parliament) in the 1890s.

“Maori political activism is part of being Maori,” she said.

“It comes from our whakapapa, and we as Maori have a responsibility to it, not others.

“I’m acknowledging that whakapapa; I’m acknowledging my responsibility to it, and that’s calling me home.

“The decision to cross the floor is not an easy one, but it’s the right one.”

The live stream of the announcement at the Hastings marae was watched closely in the Beehive, but when Deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis and acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni held a press conference shortly after the announcement, there was little they could say.

Their initial reaction was clearly one of surprise and shock.

“It’s disappointing, and clearly, it’s unexpected,” said Sepuloni.

“When you’ve had a colleague this long, it’s really hard to see that person go.

“It was very unexpected and so not so much emotional, but very disappointed with what has happened.

“We haven’t had a reason either.

“There was no contact made with the leadership, no explanation given to date.

It’s really Meka’s decision.”

Even the normally articulate Maori Party President, John Tamihere, who had introduced Whaitiri at the marae, could offer little in the way of an explanation as to why she was switching parties.

He compared her resignation with that of Tariana Turia’s resignation from Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed Bill, which led to the formation of the Maori Party.

“Today, nearly 20 years after that event, Mecca does a totally different kaupapa,” he said.

“She’s coming home to her whakapapa.

“She’s crossing the floor to cross the bridge to her own emancipation from being controlled by others to a party that she controls.”

That was perhaps a hint that Whaitiri’s resignation was as much about feeling disrespected inside Labour as she watched younger Maori women like Willow-Jean prime leapfrog over her into Cabinet.

POLITIK Maori development Minister Willie Jackson will not bag the Maori Party over the Whaitiri defection

Back at the Beehive, Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson said Whaitiri’s decision to go to the Maori Party was hers rather than following on an invitation from them. And he was reluctant to criticise the Maori Party.

“I don’t think it’s been a strategy of theirs at all,” he said.

“I think that she’s the one who made the move.

“John (Tamihere) and I have talked two or three times, but I won’t reveal what their position is.

“All I know is that we’re not out to bag them.

“They’re good MPs, and if I was in their position, if you’ve got a minister coming to you saying, I want to join you, you know, I understand where they are going to go.”

But there was another question being asked at Parliament about what exactly she had done; how had she gone about her resignation.

Her own announcement had seemed clear.

“This morning, I have officially notified the Speaker that I have resigned from the New Zealand Labour Party and have joined Te Paati Maori, effective immediately,” she said.

But if it seemed clear, it soon became clear that it wasn’t.

The Electoral (Integrity Amendment Act, otherwise known as the waka-jumping legislation, says an MP’s seat becomes vacant if they submit a signed letter to the Speaker stating certain facts.

The letter must notify the Speaker that the MP has either  “resigned from the parliamentary membership of the political party for which the member of Parliament was elected; or wishes to be recognised for parliamentary purposes as either an independent member of Parliament or a member of another political party.”

On the face of it, Whaitiri would seem to have fitted those criteria and that, therefore, she would need to leave Parliament.

That would not necessarily have led to a by-election.

Because it is within six months of an election, a 75 per cent majority of MPs could agree not to hold a by-election as they did on Tuesday dealing with the resignation of Jacinda Ardern.

So there were three conditions that needed to be met if Whaitiri was to leave Parliament. She needed to have written to the Speaker; the letter needed to be signed, and it needed to say she had resigned from Labour and was either an independent or had joined the Maori Party.

When it opened yesterday afternoon, Parliament spent 23 minutes debating what she had done and whether it mean the waka-jumping legislation would need to be triggered.

The Speaker’s opening shot was a surprise: “The Hon Meka Whaitiri is from today regarded as an independent member for parliamentary purposes.”

Opposition Leader of the House, Michael Woodhouse, asked how that could be when she said on the marae that she had written to the Speaker advising that she had resigned from Labour and joined the Maori Party. (In fact she hadn’t said that; she said she had “notified” the Speaker)

The Speaker, Adrian Ruawhe: “Members will be well aware that any member can say anything they like outside of this Chamber. When it comes to, (the Electoral Integrity Amendment Act), then, there are some very specific events that need to happen for me to declare a seat vacant. I can confirm to the House that those events have not happened, and I have, therefore, not done so.”

that was because he had not received a letter of resignation from Whaitiri. Instead, she had told him she had withdrawn her proxy vote from Labour and intended to exercise it as an independent.

Unless Labour writes to him to say she has resigned from the party, as far as the Speaker is concerned, she is still a Labour MP who wants to vote independently of the party.

That is allwoed; after all MPs are supposed to be independent individuals.

So all MPs have the right to vote against their party should they wish, and that is acknowledged in Standing Orders which provide that “the general authority for a leader or whip to cast votes on behalf of their party’s members during a party vote is subject to any express direction from a member to the contrary.”

Tamihere said he had been in contact with the Speaker, so it seemed that Whaitiri’s advice to him had been carefully worded to avoid triggering the waka-jumping legislation.

That was the loophole that would allow Whaitiri’s waka to sail through on to the eelction.