Maori Party Co-leader Rawiri Waititi is emerging as one of the stars of the 53rd Parliament. This is not yet because of the profundity of his comments – that may be still to come – but because of the style he has brought to his role. Already, he would be one of the most well-known Members of Parliament, a considerable achievement for someone elected from a minor party, currently Parliament’s smallest, for the first time at last year’s election.
In this is because of his physical presence – he is the first MP with a mataora moko or full facial tattoo in around 150 years. Add to that his distinctive hats, already the subject of much comment, especially when worn in the Parliamentary debating chamber, and Mr Waititi was clearly marked out as someone to watch, even before this week’s stoush with the Speaker over whether his hei-tiki met Parliament’s definition of appropriate neckwear for male MPs.
The hei-tiki affair is a complete storm in a teacup. It is neither the constitutional outrage Mr Waititi is trying to beat it up to be, nor the assault on Parliament’s Standing Orders the Speaker has implied. It has been clumsily and somewhat arrogantly handled by the Speaker, perhaps feeling under a little pressure following the Opposition making it clear they no longer have any confidence in him. The inconsistency of Mr Mallard’s reaction has been underscored by the fact that he had earlier allowed Mexican born Green MP Ricardo Menendez March to wear a Bona bolo tie on the grounds it was reflective of his culture. On that basis alone it is rather difficult to argue against Mr Waititi’s hei-tiki.
Nor is this issue about whether male MPs should be required to wear ties in the chamber. The Speaker has already polled Members on that point and the majority stated a preference to retain ties. Mr Mallard looked initially somewhat awkward protesting that in view of that he had little option but to respect Members’ wishes, even though he personally is against ties. Now, having changed his mind and rejected Members’ views, because of Mr Waititi’s stance, he just looks plain silly. Fancy tying himself into such a knot over neckties!
The real point of the hei-tiki issue is that Mr Waititi knows that like his hat, the hei-tiki can be quickly established as part of his brand as an MP to be used to his political advantage time and again. It marks him out as clearly different from other MPs, and that difference alone will attract interest in him, and, over time, what he and his Party have to say. Winston Churchill always referred to his Homburg hats, his cigar, and cane as his props, which served him extremely well for more than sixty years in British politics. I recall being counselled against wearing my trademark bow ties some years ago because they “drew attention to me”, which I thought was rather unusual advice to give a politician! (In fact, the real reason I wore bowties, aside from liking them, was the practical one that they are less likely to get in the way, unlike conventional neckties.)
Mr Waititi has quickly grasped the importance of branding in politics. His cowboy hat and his hei-tiki will become his political trademarks. They have already drawn him to public attention, and he has used them to gain small wins over the system. Although there was already a Speaker’s Ruling from 1999 permitting MPs to wear hats in the Chamber, provided they did not contain advertising material or other slogans, hats have been rarely seen in the chamber during those years. Mr Waititi was quick to draw attention to that Speaker’s Ruling on his first day in the Chamber, lest anyone challenge him. And now, with the Speaker doing a complete somersault and ruling that henceforth ties shall be optional it really is “game, set and match” to Mr Waititi.
Of course, the whole issue is utterly trivial to the public. It will have no impact on the issues that matter – Covid19, climate change and Labour’s housing crisis. But while the public will see this incident as yet another example of MPs being out of touch with reality, they will at the same take note of Mr Waititi. New Zealanders like nothing more than someone who is “agin the system” and who fights petty rules. Such a person earns one of our highest national compliments – “he’s a bit of a character.”
That is where Mr Waititi has already made his mark. But being a “character” will take him only so far. His props are his tools of the trade – they are not the trade itself. The bigger challenge ahead for Mr Waititi will be use them effectively to promote his wider political message to Maori and Pakeha, to secure his re-election in 2023.