National | Carmel Sepuloni

‘We had no idea’: Labour blindsided by Meka Whaitiri, acting PM heard rumour yesterday

Acting Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni is putting on a brave face despite confirming the Labour Party had no idea about Minister Meka Whaitiri’s plans to resign and join Te Pāti Māori.

A tearful Whaitiri announced this morning she had written to Speaker of the House Adrian Rurawhe, informing him of her intention to resign from the Labour Party and join Te Pāti Māori.

“Māori political activism is part of being Māori,” a visibly emotional Whaitiri said this morning from her iwi Ngāti Kahungungu’s Waipatu Marae in Hastings, which is in her Ikaroa-Rāwhiti electorate.

Sepuloni, alongside Labour Party deputy leader Kelvin Davis, told reporters the party was disappointed and did not know why Whaitiri had made the decision.

“It’s disappointing and clearly unexpected,” Sepuloni said.

“There was no explanation given, it was really Meka’s decision.”

Waka jumping

Sepuloni said Labour didn’t feel the need to kick her out of Parliament and said it was up to Whaitiri and the Speaker whether the waka-jumping legislation was invoked.

Sepuloni, acting in place of Chris Hipkins, who is in the UK ahead of King Charles’ coronation, said she heard Whaitiri might be leaving the party from a member of the public about midday yesterday and then handed the matter over to Labour’s chief of staff, Andrew Kirton.

Senior Māori ministers spoke about the matter yesterday and it was decided Justice Minister and East Coast MP Kiri Allan would travel to meet Whaitiri. The pair met, alongside Whaitiri’s family this morning, but Sepuloni would not reveal what was said.

Davis said people would have to ask Whaitiri why she made the decision as she had not provided one to Labour yet.

Asked if she felt it was betrayal, Sepuloni said no, it was Whaitiri’s decision. “We’ve just got to move on,” she said, citing the need to take care of cyclone-impacted people on the East Coast.

Taken by surprise

“It’s something that we didn’t want to have happen,” Davis said.

“The Labour caucus is just keen to get on.

“Up until yesterday, we believed she was going to be standing for Labour [in the 2023 election] ... it’s taken us all by surprise.”

Until the permanent reallocation of Whaitiri’s portfolios was made next week, Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty would be the acting Hawke’s Bay lead minister for the cyclone recovery, Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall would take up the food safety portfolio, ACC Minister Peeni Henare would be the acting minister for veterans, and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor would be acting minister of customs.

Davis said Labour had received Whaitiri’s resignation from the party.

“She can still be an independent MP ... we’ve got no reason to believe otherwise,” Sepuloni said.

Hipkins disappointed

She hoped there would be a chance for Whaitiri and the Labour leadership to sit down and have a kōrero.

“We’ll set out to win it,” Davis said of the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti electorate.

He would not entertain speculation on Whaitiri’s motivations and would not say whether he believed Whaitiri should have told the leadership before making the announcement. He also confirmed his belief that Labour supported Whaitiri adequately.

Sepuloni said Hipkins’ reaction was one of disappointment and surprise.

Asked if there was anything about Hipkins’ leadership Whaitiri had opposed, Davis reiterated that this was the first time they had learned of any dissatisfaction Whaitiri had with being a Labour minister and MP.

Whaitiri said today that Māori had a collective responsibility to speak up for their interests.

Acknowledging 'whakapapa'

“It comes from our whakapapa, and we as Māori have a responsibility to not others but we.

“Today, I’m acknowledging whakapapa. I’m acknowledging my responsibility to it and it’s calling me home.”

Whaitiri, until today a Labour minister and responsible for the cyclone recovery in Hawke’s Bay, said the decision to cross the floor was “not an easy one”.

“But it is the right one. I will be contesting the seat again in 2023 as the Māori Party candidate. I have spoken my truth, the decision is in your hands.”

She was joining an “unapologetic Māori political movement to achieve what was promised to us 183 years ago”.

What happens now?

Whaitiri may have inadvertently resigned from Parliament under the waka-jumping provisions in the Electoral Act – a step which will require Parliament to vote on whether or not to have a byelection in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti electorate.

The Speaker is yet to confirm it but the waka-jumping provisions can be triggered by either an MP or a party leader. The act states that a seat becomes vacant if the MP writes to the Speaker to notify him either that they have resigned from the parliamentary membership of the political party for which they were elected, or that they want to be recognised as either an independent or a member of another political party.

Whaitiri said she had written to the Speaker this morning to say she had resigned from the Labour Party and joined Te Pāti Māori, effective immediately. She also stated her intention to be seated with her new party when MPs returned to Parliament.

If the wording of that letter meets the criteria of the legislation, she will have quit her seat. That will mean Parliament will have to vote on whether to have a byelection. No by-election is necessary within six months of a general election as long as 75 per cent of Parliament agrees.

- New Zealand Herald