Te Tai Tonga candidates join televised debate

Te Tai Tonga Labour MP Rino Tirikatene. PHOTOS: WHAKAATA MĀORI
Te Tai Tonga Labour MP Rino Tirikatene. PHOTOS: WHAKAATA MĀORI
‘Tis the season for election debates, with podiums and politicians springing up all over the place.

Most attention this week has been on Chris v Chris 2 — and mustn’t TVNZ be wishing that the bloke behind the red podium on Newshub on Wednesday night had turned up to their debate the previous week.

There have also been plenty of debates in the South (more on that further down) and plenty more to come.

But there was one particularly fascinating debate which played out of Whakaata Māori this week which is well worth a second look.

It is not often that the candidates for Te Tai Tonga get together in the same room, for the simple reason of logistics — even though there are just four contenders, it is by far the biggest electorate in the country. The Labour incumbent Rino Tirikatene lives in the South, while his main opposition, Te Pāti Māori candidate Tākuta Ferris is a Massey university lecturer.

But Whakaata Māori, unsurprisingly, has a vested interest in allowing voters to see the candidates in all the Māori seats, and so Mr Ferris and Mr Tirikatene were united this week for the first, and potentially only, televised Te Tai Tonga debate of this election.

In theory, the two men should have had plenty in common — neither of them have the slightest interest in a National/Act New Zealand coalition becoming the next government.

In reality, not so much.

Mr Ferris made his main pitch to what the poll had confirmed was his strongest constituency: younger voters.

‘‘Te Pāti Māori is about developing a movement that claws in mokopuna Māori,’’ he said.

‘‘We have a broad base of young people, and they need to be educated; they need to understand what the system means to their lives, and our kaumātua and mātua need to demonstrate that. Our people have been long disengaged from it and we need to start now.’’

Mr Tirikatene argued that Labour had traditionally been the party which best looked after Māori, that it had done so again, and that it should be trusted to do so in the future ... especially if the alternative featured any involvement by New Zealand First and Winston Peters.

‘‘He was so hard to work with. In our first term of government, it was very difficult to put things through,’’ Mr Tirikatene said.

‘‘He’s a whanaunga of mine from the north, so I respect him as a great Māori politician, but I don’t agree with his politics. His statements that [Māori] are not indigenous — it’s just inflammatory kōrero and he’s this cat with nine lives. He just keeps coming back.’’

Polls of the Māori electorates are infrequent and not to be overly relied upon, but thanks to the ongoing excellent work of Whakaata Māori in this area of politics, the seats have been polled for it by Curia Research.

The sample for Te Tai Tonga was of just 500 people so it had a reasonably high margin of error, but indicatively Tirikatene was the preferred candidate on 36%, followed by Ferris on 25%.

The other two candidates, Geoffrey Karena Fuimaono Puhi (Independent) and Rebecca Robin (Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party) rated just 4% between them.

So, that might seem to indicate another win for Tirikatene, who has held the seat for 12 years.

Te Pati Maori candidate Takuta Ferris.
Te Pati Maori candidate Takuta Ferris.
But in 2020 — admittedly a likely outlier when it comes to election results — Mr Tirikatene received 48.8% of the vote and Mr Ferris 25.4%. That leaves open two questions: is Mr Tirikatene still on the slide, and has Mr Ferris reached his ceiling?

The party vote suggested the answer to both questions might just be yes; Labour was on 31% and Te Pāti Māori at 18%. The Greens were at 14%, National 9% and a potentially crucial 12% were undecided, so still all to play for.

In other debate news

Southern supporters of the National party are entitled to be wondering just what the bloody hell is going on in the Dunedin electorate.

Its long-serving list MP Michael Woodhouse has already been unceremoniously dropped in the dust by National’s leadership. Now it seems that they are jumping up and down on him for good measure.

As reported by the ODT this week, Mr Woodhouse was a no show for a major debate at Otago University, and it appears that he will not be showing up to any events in the future either.

Despite it all, Mr Woodhouse is a loyal Nat and he has so far said nothing, but the fact he has referred all comment to the party strongly suggests that the decision that he not actively campaign is not entirely his own.

Ironically, National has perhaps its best chance in decades of storming the Red citadel of Dunedin, especially with the uncertainty of what effect left-leaning city councillor Jim O’Malley entering the race might have on the Labour vote. It is not capitalising on that, and it might well regret it.

They would be even more regretful if this scenario came to pass: Mr Woodhouse wins Dunedin on a massive sympathy vote, it is a close election result, and National needs Mr Woodhouse in Wellington to either govern, or exclude New Zealand First from any governing arrangement.

Now that would be a fascinating conversation.

Racing this time

The 2023 election is officially under way, after overseas voting began on Wednesday.

Voting for those in New Zealand begins on Monday and the ODT is here to help. That day’s paper will include a special 12-page election preview supplement which examines the major policies announced by the parliamentary parties so far, explores the major election issues, and sets out the state of play in each of the southern electorates.