It was one of the most gripping showdowns of Saturday night’s election – the Māori Party’s Rawiri Waititi and Labour’s Tamati Coffey were neck-and-neck until the end.
Counting on the night put Waititi ahead by a narrow 415 votes, but the final result will come down to the remaining half a million “special votes” yet to be counted.
The Māori Party is nevertheless excited – returning the important Maori seat of Waiariki back to the Māori Party and securing its comeback to parliament would be a major milestone.
It will be a nervous game of wait and see for both sides but ultimately the underdog Māori Party and its supporters should be pleased with their achievements.
Despite the red landslide that saw Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party smash it out of the park to earn 49.1% of the vote nationally, Māori Party candidates came closer than expected in a couple of seats.
This shows the success of their intense grassroots campaign and social media presence, but more importantly, it shows that a growing number of voters believe the Māori Party candidates will speak up for them – and Labour’s MPs will not.
This should worry Labour’s Māori MPs. They thought they had it in the bag from the get-go, but it is clear their performance last term has left many Māori voters wanting.
Labour’s Maori MPs will need to step up their game if they want to keep the Maori electorate seats they have won after the next election in 2023.
They will need to be seen speaking out strongly over Māori issues and not just towing the party line. They will need to push to resolve outstanding issues such as the Ihumaatao land dispute.
To its credit, Labour now has 15 Māori MPs in parliament – the largest ever Māori caucus – but Māori will want to see transformational change from them and the party this term. No excuses. Labour can govern alone. Long-gone is New Zealand First, the self-proclaimed handbrake to any major left-leaning reform in the last coalition government.
That means that tinkering around the edges will no longer cut it. Māori are now calling for much-needed systemic change to lift dire Māori outcomes.
Labour’s Māori caucus is big enough to demand action within the party, but it is unlikely it will. Deputy leader, Kelvin Davis, was asked on Sunday whether the caucus would do such a thing and he replied that they are firmly unified as the Labour Party.
But what is certain is that the pressure on them will pick up if Waititi is in the House – vowing to be a staunch voice for Māori and to hold the government to account.
The nation got a taste of his leadership skills and tenacity when Covid-19 started spreading in Aotearoa, and he shut down the borders into his tribal territory on the East Coast. He was the first to put up roadblocks, challenging the law to protect his vulnerable community.
Māori voters will be expecting the same unrelenting energy from him if he gets in, but it will be hard in there on his own.
What also hangs in the air is whether Labour will try to bring Waititi in or not. Not a bad idea as it could reduce the risk of being criticised at every chance.
The election results should leave Māori voters feeling optimistic. A lot hinges on the special votes, but a nationwide lean to the left provides a platform for real change for Māori.
Leigh-Marama McLachlan is a former the Māori News Correspondent based in New Zealand. She leads communications for her Māori tribe and Te Awa Tupua, the first river in the world to gain legal personhood status.