The political strategising has begun for the year ahead with the Labour Party meeting in Taranaki for its annual caucus retreat.
While the main meeting will take place tomorrow, Labour’s Māori caucus is wasting no time with a tradition of gathering a day ahead of the main event to flesh out its key priorities.
It’s certainly worthwhile. The Māori caucus wields significant influence within its party.
When asked how much sway the group has and Deputy Labour Leader Kelvin Davis says quite a bit.
“I think we have a big influence. We’ve got the biggest Māori caucus ever,” Davis said.
Totalling 15 Māori MPs, Labour’s Māori caucus also holds six of the seven Māori electorate seats, and boasts six ministers.
“I’m proud of our team, there’s 15, call us the 1st XV if you will,” Minister Kiritapu Allan said.
It means the caucus holds serious mana – authority - around the cabinet table.
Last year it secured some big wins for Māori, including a billion-dollar slice of the government budget.
“Who would have dreamed that we would have had our own Māori Health Authority? Who would have dreamed that we would have had a Matariki Day? Who would have dreamed, particularly when we remember foreshore and seabed, that we were settling Ihumātao?,” Minister Willie Jackson said.
As a former co-chair and campaign manager, Willie Jackson is a driving force of the Māori caucus. Love him or hate him, he gets the mahi done.
“I have a background in terms of running strategy, so I was able to bring that to the table,” Jackson said.
He’s flanked by senior ministers Nanaia Mahuta and Kelvin Davis who equally hold their own.
“We like to use our muscle when we need to, but we also like to be constructive members of caucus,” Davis said.
“I think the most challenging thing around the cabinet table is that we do not lack ambition. We have high expectations of ourselves, but we know that we’ve got to take people with us,” Mahuta said.
It's a powerful position in a majority government.
“It’s like going into battle and making sure that everyone knows what their role is and what part they play,” Minister Peeni Henare said.
But a need for compromise within the party can sometimes mean Labour’s Māori caucus falls short.
That was evident last year with zero prioritisation for Māori in the vaccine rollout.
Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa Packer says it’s a point of difference between the two parties.
“We have a group of people that have to meet to be able to then go back to their powers that be, that this is what the Māori caucus within the government wants - we (Māori party) don't have to do that. We can actually sit there and live organically as Māori which is how real whānau live,” Ngarewa-Packer said.
Willie Jackson argues it’s a balancing act.
“National Party people are saying we’re being too pro-Māori, and some Māori Party people are saying we’re not being Māori enough. So, we’re a sell-out on one side and racist and separatist on the other side,” Jackson said.
Debbie Ngarewa-packer argues the Māori Party has had influence.
“If we weren’t in there as small as we are with our loud voices and the absolute focus on mana motuhake (self-determination) I don’t know that they would be able to push a lot of those things across the line that they have,” Ngarewa-Packer said.
“I’d say some people chuck stones from the outside and some people hustle and get the job done around the table,” Minister Kiritapu Allan said.
A delicate balancing act is certainly required in order for Labour’s Māori caucus to influence further change in the year ahead.