Ta­mati Cof­fey has won the bat­tle Has he lost the war?

He didn’t fore­cast this. The for­mer weath­er­man, in win­ning the Wa­iariki seat for Labour, may per­versely have con­signed his party to three more long years in the cold. Benn Bath­gate re­ports.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS POLITICS -

It’s a quick flash across a fa­mil­iar face, blink and you’d miss it, but it’s real anger. Ta¯mati 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 moun­tain­bik­ers file past out­side, and a mix of tourists and lo­cals, even a lo­cal writ­ing group, file into the cafe.

Cof­fey looks re­laxed, if a lit­tle tired, sport­ing a black T-shirt em­bla­zoned with the words ‘‘Ma¯ori Labour’’.

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

Cof­fey steams.

He knows she 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 Ma¯ori Party’s 19.9 per cent.

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

‘‘I think that will en­sure we don’t see her in pol­i­tics again.’’

It may be true that the po­lit­i­cal ca­reers of the Ma¯ori 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 elec­torate in 2014, Cof­fey shifted to the over­lap­ping Maori seat of Wa­iariki – just in time to ride the Jacinda Ardern 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 Ma¯ori Party out of Par­lia­ment; he knee-capped a likely coali­tion part­ner.

Fox makes no bones about it: the Ma¯ori 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, Ma¯ori Party pres­i­dent Tuku Mor­gan is­sued a state­ment: ‘‘Ma¯ori 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 to the Sun­day Star-Times a week be­fore the elec­tion, Ardern was chal­lenged on why she had been sup­port­ing Cof­fey so ag­gres­sively in Wa­iariki.

‘‘Ta¯mati is a great can­di­date,’’ she replied. ‘‘Of course we’re sup­port­ing him; of course we’re sup­port­ing all our can­di­dates in the Ma¯ori 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 Ma¯ori 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 Ma¯ori 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 Ma¯ori 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 Ma¯ori 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.

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 D de­ter­mi­na­tion to win a seat. id Ta¯mati Cof­fey kill the Ma¯ori Party? There’s a long pause. 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 cal­en­dar 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, but is also sad – this was a job his grand­fa­ther would have done, had he been alive.

Cof­fey ad­mits that he – like all MPs at present – is in a strange kind of limbo.

He de­scribes Par­lia­ment now as a frus­trat­ing 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.

For now, 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’.’’

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. Ta¯ mati Cof­fey


Once known bet­ter as the TVNZ Break­fast weath­er­man, Ta­mati Cof­fey has achieved his long-held dream of en­ter­ing Par­liement, with the sup­port of Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, be­low left, and his part­ner Tim Smith. And their dogs, of course.

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