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On whanaungatanga, and how I startled myself by contemplating a vote for Bill English

The National leader’s mana-enhancing approach was as impressive as the Labour leader’s ‘not kaupapa’ outburst was depressing, says Carrie Stoddart-Smith.

Bewitched by a glass (or two) of smooth red merlot, intoxicated by the ambience of festoon lights nestled among the grapevines in the Hawkes Bay, I sputtered out to the universe (via Twitter) that I could potentially vote for Bill English. To pre-empt the incoming derp: so fucking middle class. I know.

Allow me to provide some context. I was at a function. The theme: whanaungatanga and the importance of Māori business and cultural relationships with China.

Māori economic development is my jam. Māori are leaders in the business world. Although not yet the big money makers, our goods and services are in demand in key international markets. Our business models and stories are envied and cherished. Our iwi asset holding companies, hapū organisations, Māori authorities and business rangatira and entrepreneurs have been able to tap into major markets – despite our scale issues – and forge connections with each other and with economic giants of the world. They do this through practising tikanga, and more specifically whanaungatanga. As such, our business models are evolving, shaping and transforming our domestic industries and our international relationships.

Enter the Right Honourable Bill English sans the dry balls speech. Speaking candidly to the aspirations of Māori, celebrating the success of Māori models, insisting on the importance of government enabling Māori to lead on their own solutions, and a few jokes at his own expense to whakawhanaungatanga with the audience and it happened – cue *heart eye emoji*. It came on the back of weeks of headlines and think pieces referring to Māori aspirations as “elitist” or questioning the quantum and quality of the Māori-ness of some of our most esteemed leaders. Enamoured by English’s mana-enhancing approach in revering our rangatira Māori, I made my shocking Twitter proclamation.

That day in particular, Andrew Little referred to people whom I and many others respect with all our heart as “hopeless” and claimed the only indigenous designed, led and comprised party in parliament, the Māori Party, was not “kaupapa Māori”. A Pākehā seeking the vote of our Māori peoples for his kaupapa Pākehā party, deciding what constituted kaupapa Māori.

Now, I fully tautoko that there will never be just one kaupapa Māori politics because Māori society is dynamic and made up of “peoples”, ie hapū and iwi are not a homogenous “people”. For me, kaupapa Māori politics is fundamentally about whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and aroha. It is a lived story that does not care for political colours; its focus will always be the kaupapa and the tikanga. However, as I wrote in my chapter “Radical Kaupapa Māori Politics” in the Morgan Godfery-edited BWB text The Interregnum:

To ensure that kaupapa Māori retains its distinctively Māori core we must actively prevent Pākehā narratives from wilting our commitment to retrieve political space. This is the only way we will dismantle the vestiges of colonisation, transform how we interact in a multicultural society, become the architects of our own solutions, and counteract the unequal distribution of power in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Little’s comments were obtuse, intended to disempower Māori voices, an assault on a kaupapa Māori party for his Pākehā kaupapa. The line of rangatira he captured in his derogatory comments include esteemed leaders such as Dr Whatarangi Winiata, Tā Pita Sharples, Dame Tariana Turia, Dame June Mariu, Whaea Rangmarie Naida Glavish and many, many more who built and shaped the political platform of the Māori Party.  Their primary purpose to advance Māori aspiration and wellbeing through a kaupapa Māori approach: by Māori, for Māori, with Māori for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

I cannot fathom ever supporting a leader who openly or otherwise strives to disempower indigenous voices. Am I reconsidering voting for the National Party? Well, although I was impressed with English, and am wholly unimpressed with Little, my voting heart belongs elsewhere.

Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell and Bill English at Waitangi in 2015. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

However, I was weighted toward a “walk away” position for the Māori Party regarding National, but am reconsidering that stance. In my view, whanaungatanga is the means by which not only Māori businesses but also Māori political actors can achieve outcomes through shared experiences and working together to create reciprocal relationships. Without whanaungatanga, Māori could not achieve anything in a political system geared toward the white majority.

In an MMP environment, the Beehive is ripe for the taking by whanaungatanga. Rather than coalition building along binary lines, Māori political actors – as individuals, caucuses or parties can use our tikanga to build cross party partnerships to heal fractured relationships and speak freely, frankly and independently about our desires, aspirations and concerns.

For example, given National’s recent freshwater policy announcement on swimmable rivers by 2040, where wadeable is the new swimmable, there is an opportunity for Māori to advocate for the extension and growth of Te Mana o Te Wai. It is my view, that National’s announcement minimises the Te Mana o Te Wai concept to recognise ‘fresh water as a natural resource whose health is integral to the social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of communities’. It minimises by not centring the rightful kaitiaki in the freshwater picture, and ignoring the sustainability solutions Māori have practiced for centuries that influence a range of wellbeing indicators from health, culture, and education to business and many more. It will be through whanaungatanga that Māori can influence action in this space.

We need to clear our heads of the white fog. Māori political actors do not need to engage in the shit throwing and personal attacks. Rising above unpleasant behaviour or attitudes and extending aroha without expectation enhances all our mana. Whether you are Māori in a Pākehā party, or Māori in a Māori party, you can embrace whanaungatanga to counteract unequal distribution of power in Aotearoa New Zealand. Whanaungatanga is our political currency. Whanaungatanga opens paths to embedding tikanga and mātauranga Māori. That in itself is an expression of kaupapa Māori politics.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not a reflection of the views of her employer.

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