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.
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’’.
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.