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Dunne Speaks: Waititi The Winner

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

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

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

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