New Zealand Labour minister suddenly defects to Māori party | New Zealand politics


A minister in New Zealand’s Labour government has abruptly quit the party, saying she will contest the upcoming election for the minor Māori party – roiling colleagues who were blindsided by her defection.

Meka Whaitiri’s resignation from Labour “effective immediately” appeared likely to bolster the electoral fortunes of Te Pāti Māori (the Māori party), which recent polls suggest could be the kingmaker after October’s general election.

In a speech on Wednesday at her marae (ancestral meeting place) in Hastings, Whaitiri did not cite any specific disagreement with Labour as the cause of her departure.

“I intend to be seated with Te Pāti Māori when we return to parliament, joining an unapologetic Māori political movement to achieve what was promised to us 183 years ago,” she said, referring to New Zealand’s founding treaty signed between the British crown and Māori leaders in 1860, and the nearly two centuries of struggle over Māori sovereignty and land ownership that followed. Whaitiri, who was at times emotional as she spoke, did not take questions from reporters and has not elaborated on her remarks.

But her move stunned the Labour prime minister, Chris Hipkins, who was travelling to London for King Charles’ coronation when speculation emerged in the media on Tuesday night. He said Whaitiri had not told him she intended to quit.

Carmel Sepuloni, the acting prime minister, told reporters in Wellington on Wednesday that she and her Labour colleagues “haven’t had a reason either” for Whaitiri’s defection. But Sepuloni was measured in remarks about a former colleague on whom Labour may soon rely for a governing deal after the election – saying only that the party was “disappointed” but “moving on” from the news.

Labour will contest Whaitiri’s electorate seat in October’s vote, its leaders added.

Whaitiri – who was the minister of customs, food safety and veterans, and the lead minister on recovery efforts following Cyclone Gabrielle – entered parliament in 2013 and handily won the Māori electorate seat of Ikaroa-Rāwhiti for Labour at the 2020 election with nearly double the votes of her nearest rival. Her electorate covers some of the areas most profoundly devastated by the cyclone in February.

John Tamihere, president of Te Pāti Māori, hinted at tension between Whaitiri and Labour when introducing her on Wednesday. She was crossing the floor “to cross a bridge to her own emancipation, from being controlled by others to a party that she controls”, he said.

Whaitiri was overlooked for promotion this year when Hipkins took office, languishing in the ministerial rankings as Māori caucus colleagues advanced. She had been stripped of her ministerial portfolios in 2018 after allegations of bullying after an altercation with her press secretary, but was reappointed as a minister outside the cabinet in 2020.

Sepuloni said on Wednesday that Whaitiri was removed as a minister upon her resignation, but Labour would not seek her expulsion from parliament despite a law that would permit such a move. The speaker of New Zealand’s parliament ruled on Wednesday that while Whaitiri could sit with Te Pāti Māori and its two lawmakers in the house until it dissolves for the election, she would be considered an independent MP rather than a member of her new group.

A Curia poll in April showed Labour and the main opposition party, centre-right National, tied at 37% of the vote each, with the left-leaning Greens – who support Labour – on 7% and the libertarian ACT party (traditionally aligned with National) on 10%. Both major parties would need the support of Te Pāti Māori to form a government.

“We haven’t made a choice of who we would go with and deliberately because we may not go into relationships like have been done in the past,” Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, co-leader of Te Pāti Māori, told TVNZ in March.


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