The news last night that Meka Whaitiri, the MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Minister of Customs and Veterans, is to announce today that she will leave Labour for the Maori Party reinforces Labour’s chances of leading the next Government.
Unless she is proposing to drop a bombshell today, there is no indication that her move is one driven by outright opposition to the current Government.
She has had a long association with Labour, having been electorate manager for her predecessor in the seat, Parekura Horomia.
As a consequence, she has a web of connections in the seat, which stretches from East Cape to Wellington and embraces two big iwi, Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungungu.
She would be expected to hold the seat, albeit under a different party banner.
Last election, she had a 6045 majority over the Maori Party candidate, Helen Skipworth, but in 2017, her majority was 4210 over the Maori Party candidate, Marama Fox.
Last night the Beehive was silent on the Te Ao Maori report.
A spokesperson for the Acting Prime Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, said they were aware of the speculation.
“We have nothing further to add at this point,” the spokesperson said.
But Whaitiri’s timing is clever.
Only yesterday, the Speaker received a report from the leader of the House, Grant Robertson, advising that because a general election would be held within six months of the resignation of Jacinda Ardern, no writ would need to be issued for an election in Mt Albert.
Though Whaitiri is technically subject to the waka-jumping legislation, the timing of her move means there is no need for a by-election in Ikaroa Rawhiti.
It is hard to believe that wasn’t discussed with Labour.
And though Whaitiri may feel disgruntled about the failure of both Ardern and Chris Hipkins to reinstate her in Cabinet, her move to the Maori Party will be an enormous boost for Labour.
It means the party is almost certain to return to Parliament holding at least one, possibly as many as three electorate seats.
Labour has worked on its relationship with the Maori Party, and the two parties have been holding regular meetings to discuss policy.
Though they may be described as “kingmakers”, the Maori Party and Labour are a natural fit, whereas the Maori Party and National are not.
The stakes are high.
Polling released last night by Roy Morgan showed that unless the Maori Party gets back to Parliament and supports Labour with supply and confidence, Labour would have little hope of forming the next Government.
The same polling showed that just as Labour needs the Maori party as well as the Greens, National needs NZ First as well as ACT.
Roy Morgan Poll March 2023
|Without NZ 1st||With NZ First|
The Roy Morgan poll for March shows New Zealand First on 4.5 per cent, tantalisingly close to the five per cent threshold to gain seats in Parliament.
Based on last night’s poll, were NZ First to gain another .6 of a per cent to take it to 5.1 per cent, a National-ACT-NZ First government would have a four-seat majority over a Labour-Greens-Maori Party Opposition.
It is this sort of polling that is causing some influential figures within the National Party to ask how the party might be able to quietly assist New Zealand First to get over five per cent.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters last year said a coalition with Labour is off the cards because “they can’t be trusted”.
That leaves him with probably only one choice; a deal with National.
He could sit on the cross benches and abstain on supply and confidence, but that could see Labour forming the Government, something he says he is opposed to.
There is always scepticism among political professionals about Morgan polls, but the key takeaway that Labour could form a government with the Greens and the Maori Party over a National ACT pairing is more or less in line with most other polls.
NZ First’s Shane Jones is standing for the Northland seat, and his campaign is already displaying more energy than he did in 2020.
He has the support of at least one influential senior National Party figure in the electorate who is advising National Party supporters that the party will need him in Parliament if they want to be the Government.
But it is a complicated electorate battle in that seat.
Logically, National’s candidate, a high-profile farmer, Grant McCallum, should win easily.
But Jones is targeting what he believes are soft Labour votes who left National in 2015 and voted for Winston Peters in the by-election and then voted for Labour’s candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, at the last election.
But he is also having to fight off the former National MP, Matt King, who is standing again and running a high profile for his anti-vax populist DemocracyNZ Party.
His votes are likely to come from potential NZ First supporters.
There was also a strong ACT candidate at the last election, Mark Cameron, but it is unclear whether he will stand again this year.
ACT’s relationship with National currently does not seem good. Their announcement of Brooke van Velden’s challenge to Tamaki MP Simon O’Connor was obviously deliberately timed to steal the media thunder from Christopher Luxon’s keynote speech at the party conference.
And it did, with both Sunday night TV news bulletins featuring it.
Whaitiri’s move will surely add urgency to the discussions within National about how to get NZ First back to Parliament, but that will risk creating more friction with ACT.
What we are seeing is what happens when the two main parties are within two per cent of each other and when nearly 40 per cent of the electorate doesn’t want to vote for either of them.