Tāmati Coffey, the man who won the battle but may lose the war

Asked if he killed off the Māori Party, Tamati Coffey pauses. Eventually he admits: some see him as the "big bad wolf, ...

Asked if he killed off the Māori Party, Tamati Coffey pauses. Eventually he admits: some see him as the "big bad wolf, but I'm not".

He didn't forecast this. Former weatherman Tāmati Coffey, in winning the Waiariki seat for Labour, could perversely have consigned his party to three more long years in Opposition.

It's a quick flash across a familiar face, blink and you'd miss it and gone almost as soon as it arrived, but it's real anger.

Tāmati Coffey, the newly minted Labour MP for Waiariki, is talking to us in a busy Rotorua cafe just down the road from the famous Whakarewarewa Forest. A steady stream of mountain bikers file past outside, and a mix of tourists and locals, even a local writing group, file into the cafe. 

Seen here on in the lead-up to the election, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern campaigned hard for the party's Waiariki ...

Seen here on in the lead-up to the election, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern campaigned hard for the party's Waiariki candidate Tamati Coffey – even though it meant knocking a potential coalition partner out of Parliament.

Coffey looks relaxed, if a little tired, sporting a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Māori Labour".

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It's his very familiarity - and genuine likeability - that makes the uncharacteristic anger so remarkable, when the topic of Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox's post election remarks about Labour arises. Māori voters were, she said, like a beaten wife returning to an abuser, one who had "abused our people over and over again".

From weatherman and daytime TV host to Parliament, Tamati Coffey says he's worked hard to get where is today.

From weatherman and daytime TV host to Parliament, Tamati Coffey says he's worked hard to get where is today.

Coffey steams.

He knows Fox was hurting in the immediate aftermath of the election, he says, but the remarks were out of line and a show of disrespect to the Waiariki voters who overwhelmingly cast their party votes to Labour. Labour picked up 57.9 per cent of the Waiariki party vote, against the Māori Party's 19.9 per cent. 

Coffey believes the comments reflect a wider problem in the Māori Party at the election: a sense of entitlement to the Māori vote. "Yes they're Māori, but we're Māori too. I thought that was very telling that she was saying stuff like that," he says.

Tāmati Coffey, his partner Tim Smith and their dogs.

Tāmati Coffey, his partner Tim Smith and their dogs.

"I think that will ensure we don't see her in politics again."

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It may be true that the political careers of the Māori Party co-leaders are over. But Coffey knows there are some who blame him for that. He's been told as much repeatedly.

The 38-year-old orders a soy milk mocha – we're ready to talk, and not just about this election.

This is Rotorua, but Coffey spent much of his career working at TVNZ in downtown Auckland.  He came out, politically, ahead of the 2014 election to contest the Rotorua seat for Labour.

He knew it would surprise some people, those who knew him from Breakfast, Dancing with the Stars, New Zealand's Got Talent. Those closer to him however, wouldn't have been shocked. Coffey graduated from Auckland University in 2003 with a degree in political science. Where others may have had posters of sports or pop stars in their bedroom, Coffey had a picture of the Beehive. 

It'd always been politics, it's just that television success got in the way. It was a risk to walk away from what he admitted was a very lucrative career. It was helped in some ways by his greatest television success. After New Zealand's Got Talent, he reasoned, could it get any bigger?

After falling well short in the Rotorua elecotrate in 2014, Coffey shifted to the overlapping Maori seat of Waiariki – just in time to ride the Jacinda wave.

But in pushing for a personal vote in the Waiariki electorate, when elsewhere Labour's primary focus was on the party vote, Coffey has lost the Left seats that would have supported a Jacinda Ardern government, and given a seat to National. He didn't just knock the Māori Party out of Parliament; he knee-capped a likely coalition partner.

Marama Fox makes no bones about it: the Māori Party would have teamed up with Labour; their members wanted a change of government. "We as a party would have gone back to our members to decide, and from what I know they were leaning left," she explains. 

Just three hours after Ardern was named leader, Māori Party president Tuku Morgan issued a statement: "Māori people throughout the country are telling me they want our party to work with Labour if it's in a position to form a government after September 23."

Speaking a week before the election, Ardern was challenged on why she had been supporting Coffey so aggressively in the Waiariki electorate.

"Tāmati is a great candidate," she replied. "Of course we're supporting him; of course we're supporting all our candidates in the Māori seats. We support them to win. Whatever then we're delivered with after the election that's when we cross that bridge."

If she woke up on Sunday morning after election day and Labour and the Greens were just a couple of seats short of a majority, she was asked, how seriously would she regret rebuffing olive branches from the Mana and Māori parties?

"Look," she retorted, "if we are delivered after the election a make-up of people who share our values we have those conversations. But, the Māori Party is contesting those seats hard and so is Labour. We want the best representatives possible in those seats and of course we back our candidates to do that."

The fact is, by turfing out Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, the voters of Waiariki may have sacrificed Labour's chance at leading a government. When special votes were counted yesterday, National had more seats than Labour and the Greens put together. But if Flavell had held on, the Left bloc would be in a 55-seat tie with National today – and Bill English would have no "moral authority" to demand to lead the next government.

Fox says Labour showed a lack of vision, ignoring arrangements that could have seen their Māori MPs in Parliament via the list, joined by hard-left Mana Party leader Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau and the Maori Party back in Waiariki. "It was short-sighted of Labour," she says.

Wisdom or sour grapes, take your pick. But now, as Coffey takes his seat in Parliament, he will have even more grounds than his Labour colleagues to hope Ardern can negotiate a Labour-led government. He knows the Left bloc could have been bigger, the National Party caucus one seat smaller – but for his determination to win a seat for himself at all costs.


Did Tāmati Coffey kill the Māori Party? There's a long pause.

Yes, he admits, he's been accused of that. "I got that on the night and I've had it non-stop. It's petered out a little bit, but maybe."

He's clear though that ultimately, the voters made the call. "Some of their supporters would like to term it like I'm the big bad wolf, but I'm not. I did not force 9000-odd people to the voting booth and I did not force their hand to tick that box."

Coffey also revealed some of the inner turmoil that accompanied the election night, surrounded by bullish supporters. "As Te Ururoa Flavell was giving his concession speech I had to rein in my supporters and say, hey guys, I know this is what we wanted but we've got to be respectful right now because there's a guy up there crying."

"It could have been me and in three years time, it might be again."

While the election eventually spelt the end of Flavell's political career, could it have ended Coffey's too?

He'd nailed his colours to the Rotorua/Waiariki region, and had a tilt at the Rotorua electorate before swapping rolls for the 2017 election.

Would a loss have finished him too, politically?

Again, a long pause.

"I don't know. I hadn't thought about it past the election. My whole calender finished at the 23rd of September, there was nothing after that."


Coffey has a huge electorate to cover, an inbox steadily filling up with invitations and requests, and like all the Parliamentary newbies, he's grappling with the nuts and bolts of being a jobbing MP.

He pulls out his phone and reels off the schedule for the past few days. 

Inductions, seminars on the role of the legislation design and advisory committee, seminars with the Office of the Auditor General, seminars with the Cabinet Office. 

"All that stuff that happens behind the scenes that normal people don't know anything about, but in order to be the best possible MP you can be, you need to know that stuff."

There's also the more mundane business of life that continues in the background.

The washing machine that broke, the dishwasher that packed up, the oven door that fell off, the toilet seat that fell off. 

Things got so bad, he said, they stopped inviting campaign volunteers to their Rotorua home.  "Our house was falling apart," he says, laughing.

Coffey credits Tim Smith, his partner and campaign manager, for holding the fort.

Smith also had to squeeze in running their business, Rotorua's Ponsonby Rd lounge bar.

It's with an expression of mixed relief and laughter that Coffey describes the arrival of Smith's mother from England as the landing of an angel. "What's going on in this house?" was her first remark on arrival. 

He's equally effusive about the role Te Arawa kaumatua Ken Kennedy played in his campaign, and talking about the man who mentored him another flash appears. Longer this time, and one of genuine sadness.

Kennedy, who he knew from  their joint roles on the Citizens Club board, was filling a role that ideally, someone else would have held.

"It would have been my grandfather if he was alive but he's not and I needed someone to fill that role for me."

On election night, when victory was looking assured, Coffey said he expected the first day at Parliament to be like the first day at a new school, a prediction he now says was correct. "And everybody else had the same feeling, it's just that some were bluffing better than others."

His calender stretches way beyond September 23 now, but he admits that he – like all MPs at present – is also in a strange kind of limbo.

He describes Parliament now as a purgatory of waiting and waiting, where no-one is quite able to make themselves at home yet. 

He's been shown his new office and given a warning: Don't get used to it, you might be moving. 

Coffey said it's frustrating: he wants to get down to business, and hopefully as part of Government, not opposition. "We can't even talk about budgets because we don't know if we're the Government or the opposition. I think once know one way or another,  then we'll be able to start making plans and get on doing the real work."

He's hopeful Winston Peters may make the call for a Labour coalition.

Until that's known, the Labour Party whips have told the MPs to head home, spend some time with family and relax. It's come as a welcome pause too after a hectic campaign, and an election night that rolled over into a flurry of interviews and then Wellington.

He got to bed at 1am on the night of the election, before a 5am wake-up to head to Auckland for media rounds. 

It's good to be home, with Smith, the dogs, and back in his own bed. The dogs went crazy on his return.

He knows though that irrespective of Labour's role after the dust settles, he'll be busy. "It'll be full on until the end of the year. The whips said, get ready for an intense time."

* Comments on this article have been closed.

 - Sunday Star Times


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