Politics | Labour Party

Ex Labour minister Meka Whaitiri talks about her shock defection to Te Pāti Māori

By NZ Herald reporters Raphael Franks, Vaimoana Tapaleao and Michael Neilson

Former Labour cabinet minister Meka Whaitiri said she didn’t tell the Prime Minister and Labour’s Māori caucus before her defection because of the “timing” and because she wanted to prioritise her family over Chris Hipkins and the party.

In her first major interview since her shock resignation from Labour last week, Whaitiri, an MP with the party since 2013, also revealed to TVNZ's Breakfast that she "didn't feel heard".

Whaitiri has dodged phone calls from the prime minister over her decision, which blindsided him and other Labour colleagues when she announced it last week.

Whaitiri, who held the customs, cyclone recovery, veterans and food safety portfolios, told Breakfast there was no specific policy behind her departure and continued to push her message that she simply needed to return to her roots.

Asked why she had not even called her boss - Hipkins - she said she prioritised who needed to know and that she went to her “trusted sources”. She also said the “timing” was a factor in not telling the prime minister nor any of her colleagues, including the Māori caucus that had stood by her through her toughest moments in Parliament.

'Didn't feel heard'

The Herald understands Whaitiri's official announcement was planned for a later date but had to be brought forward after media enquiries.

Asked whether she didn’t trust the Prime Minister, she avoided the premise of the question and responded: “I trust my family.”

Whaitiri said she had been hurt while being in the Labour Party.

“I didn’t feel heard.”

Ultimately, she told Breakfast, the decision to move to Te Pāti Māori was a deeply personal one.

“It’s always been a calling of mine. It’s been my calling to return to an unapologetically Māori party,” Whaitiri said.

A 'beckoning to move'

She said the timing was right for her and her whānau and so “here we are”.

She said the decision was “deep within my puku” to make the shift to Te Pāti Māori.

She said as a Māori, it was a “beckoning” to move.

Whaitiri is returning to Parliament today for the first time since her resignation, now as an independent MP.

Whaitiri will be making a statement in the early afternoon before taking questions from media in her first major public appearance since the announcement.

Whaitiri will then enter Parliament as an independent MP, where there will be a bid to carry out a ceremony symbolising her new relationship with Te Pāti Māori.

'Didn't reach out'

Hipkins told Breakfast he still had not heard from Whaitiri.

Put to him that Whaitiri expressed she had not felt heard while in the Labour Party, Hipkins said: “I don’t agree with that. If she didn’t feel heard ... I’m not sure what the message was because - I went back through my messages, thinking: ‘Gosh, have I missed anything from her’?

“And at no point did she reach out to me indicating that she had anything to say.

"Ultimately, it's a personal decision by Meka," Hipkins told Breakfast.

Hipkins said that was now all water under the bridge.

'Very open door'

“She’s made her decision, she’s switched parties. Obviously, I disagree with that decision but I’ve got much more important things to be focused on at the moment,” Hipkins said.

Hipkins told AM he was disappointed to hear that Whaitiri has spoken out to say she didn’t feel heard within Labour.

”She hasn’t raised any concerns at any stage with me or with other leaders in the party, and we do create a lot of space for members of parliament and ministers to be heard.

”I’m sort of disappointed to hear that but, ultimately, it’s her decision.”

Asked if Labour MPs, especially Māori Labour MPs, felt comfortable speaking to him and raising issues with him, Hipkins said he has a “very open door”.

”I generally think I am a pretty approachable guy [and] I will generally give people a hearing to whatever issues they want to raise. Meka didn’t raise any issues with me,” he said.

Proud track record

Hipkins said he didn’t accept that his Māori MPs could not unapologetically be Māori within the party.

”Labour's track record for delivery for Māori is a really proud one, I think our Māori members should be and are very proud of the work we have done,” he said.

Hipkins said the ultimate verdict on whether Whaitiri made the right decision will be made at the next election by the voters of her electorate.

”We will put up a candidate and we will compete strongly for that electorate, they’ve supported Labour very strongly in the past,” he said.

”Whether or not Meka made the right decision will be a matter for them to decide.”

Hipkins said it was hard to say whether he could have supported her better without her having raised any issues.

Never mentioned any issues

Labour colleagues have voiced their disappointment and surprise, while Te Pāti Māori welcomed Whaitiri and said she had “enormous courage” to switch parties.

Senior Labour Minister Willie Jackson said Whaitiri still hadn’t spoken to him after defecting last Wednesday.

Speaking to TVNZ's Q+A with Jack Tame at the weekend, Jackson said he believed Whaitiri moved to Te Pāti Māori because she'd been passed over for a position in the cabinet in Chris Hipkins' most recent reshuffle.

“We know why she left, even though it hasn’t been made clear ... I think it’s obvious that she probably wanted to ... be promoted into the cabinet and she’s a very capable minister,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he did not want to “dump on” Whaitiri for leaving Labour.

He said Whaitiri had never mentioned any issues with the government to him before.


He said he was “very disappointed” she was leaving and to find out the way he did given they were good friends, but he wished her well.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel 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 something that we didn’t want to have happen,” Davis said.

“The Labour caucus is just keen to get on.

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

Justice Minister Kiri Allan said, “We were sad ... but this was a decision for Meka.”

"Gone out on her terms'

Allan drove to Hawke’s Bay from Wellington to meet with Whaitiri after her announcement but said she wanted to keep her conversations with the former minister private.

She said she had asked Whaitiri if she was sure, and Whaitiri had then asked her if she too wanted to come to Te Pāti Māori.

Allan said it was for Whaitiri to say why she had not spoken to the Labour leadership about her decision ahead of time.

“She’s made her decision, she’s gone out on her terms.

Allan said Whaitiri had not given a specific reason for going.

“She was calm in her decision-making.

'This takes courage'

“Those are her reasons, they’re for her and her whānau.”

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere said: “Crossing the floor, crossing that bridge, this takes courage, enormous courage for [Whaitiri} to do this. She’s walking away from a ministerial job, walking away from a sure thing.

“And she’s walking into an unknown, but she’s doing it for the mana of our people.

“She [Whaitiri] is crossing the bridge to her own emancipation.”

- NZ Herald.