Waiariki’s new MP: The Māori Party’s Rawiri Waititi on his journey to Parliament

From Cape Runaway to Parliament – with a politician-producing street, five kids and a wife, and a waka jump in between – Waiariki’s new MP Rawiri Waititi’s journey to Parliament is far from dull.

When NZME caught up with Waititi in Rotorua on Friday morning, he was just hours away from finding out whether he would hold on to the seat won with a tight margin over Labour incumbent Tāmati Coffey on election night – the Māori Party’s only seat.

But even after a gruelling three-week wait for the special votes to be counted, he was calm, predicting a “sigh of relief” would be his first reaction if it was good news.

And it was. Not only did the special votes double his lead to 836 votes, they also delivered him some company in Parliament.

An increase in the Māori Party’s party vote from 1 to 1.2 per cent meant co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer will enter Parliament as a list MP.

Looking back at his campaign, Waititi has been rolling out his favourite rugby analogy.

“Like a tight-headed prop, we gave it a good shove.

“We left no stone unturned.”

He said it wouldn’t have been possible without his support crew behind the scenes, who went hard on social media and on the ground throughout.

There were around 10 people involved and 20 of their children also tagged along for the ride, which Waititi said rang true for his “whānau-centric” and “grassroots” lifestyle and campaign.

The team included his five kids, aged 4 to 12, and his wife Kiri Tamihere-Waititi, who is the daughter of John Tamihere, co-leader of the party through the campaign before handing over the mantle to Waititi post-election.

The family live near Te Kaha on the East Coast, not too far from where he grew up in the tiny community of Cape Runaway.

He was born in October 1981 to into a “very strong Māori community”.

His father was a dairy farmer and his mother a homemaker but Waititi said it was the iwi in about a 200km radius that raised him.

Waititi said he was blessed with strong Māori grandparents on one side and strong British grandparents on the other, who both had huge influences on his upbringing and put him in good stead for life.

He grew up during the kohango reo movement and feels fortunate to have been raised when the “resurgence of the Māori language” was roaring, he said.

His days were spent riding horses, fishing, hunting and diving, playing outdoors until the sun went down.

“As young Māori boys, the oval ball was always close.”

It wasn’t until Waititi hit his early teens and moved up Auckland to live with his aunt, Dame June Mariu, that he got his first “real culture shock”.

He moved from his small village school of no more than 33 children to Rutherford College in West Auckland.

He lived on Tawa St a small suburban street that, according to Waititi, has produced three
Māori MPs.

He said “the movers and the shakers” of the Māori movement came from that area at the time and helped set him off down the same track.

Waititi started out with Labour, taking his first run at the Waiariki seat in 2014 but losing to then-Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell.

He said he found being part of Labour “really difficult”, describing it as an “assimilated space”.

When he was approached in 2015 to join the Māori Party resurgence, he said it was a “no-brainer”. Waititi backed Flavell in 2017 but the leader, and the entire party, failed to win any seats.

So there was a lot riding on Waititi’s second run at the seat this year, especially going up against the “red tide of the Labour Party”.

Waititi said he believed he was a good reflection of the “character of Waiariki”.

“[I feel] humbled and privileged that the people had been courageous and brave enough to put their trust in the Māori Party.”

To Waititi, the acronym for New Zealand’s MMP voting system stands for “More Māori in Parliament”, and he believed people had strategically voted to have both him and Coffey in the House.

“I’m looking forward to having a discussion with Tāmati about how we can work together. Put the partisan politics aside and work for the benefit of our people.”

From day one, he said his purpose was to be a true, independent and unapologetic Māori voice in Parliament and, having won the seat, he would do just that.

“I want to hold the Government to account. Get into undoing the systematic stuff.”

He said one of the first things was addressing a rule that only allowed Māori to change between the general and Māori rolls every five years. His aim was to get more Māori on the Māori roll.

“Democracy has never worked for our people as the majority always rules.”

Nonetheless, Waititi said he had “a bit of learning to do” in working out how to use his time strategically and most effectively.

He is planning a range of private members’ bills that he aims to put forward.

Waititi wanted to pave the landscape so New Zealand people knew that the Māori Party was back, the “waka was on the water” and it would continue to fight both inside and outside Parliament’s walls, he said.

A large part of his campaign had been speaking to the up-and-coming voters of the future and he said the Māori Party would come back even stronger in 2023.

“Always build for tomorrow.”

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