Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson. Photo: supplied

Marama Davidson: ‘Governments shouldn’t pander to the privileged’

Self-confessed fan Morgan Godfery talks Māori politics with Green Party co-leader, Marama Davidson.

Marama Davidson is your best friend. If she’s isn’t, you just haven’t met her yet. The Green Party co-leader, an ex-theatre girl – the daughter of Whale Rider koro Rawiri Paratene – former human rights advocate, and multitasking mother of six, wants to connect. “Everything is supposed to be connected,” Davidson told the House in her maiden speech, taking former co-leader Russel Norman’s seat in 2015. “We are supposed to be connected to each other as neighbours and as a global community. My wellbeing is supposed to be connected to yours. We are supposed to be connected to the life systems that nourish us. We are supposed to be connected to the future we are designing for generations to come.”

“My pride in my whakapapa is supposed to be connected to your pride in yours.”

I’m a convert, and I’m feeling a connection even before our meet. But if we already agree on the meaning of life – whakapapa – doesn’t everything else seem, well, small? Probably. Best to ease into it. I decide I’ll open with the weather. It’s a dismal day in Wellington. The Rimutakas are wearing their top hat – a damp-looking nimbostratus – and the Bowen House porch is leaking. Public servants enter and exit in single file. I fall in behind, making my way to the 15th floor. A call comes through. “The coffee is waiting”. This only confirms things. There is a connection. Blow talking the weather. I want to know if Marama Davidson is psychic.

What else does she know? Did she know using the C word at the rally against racism, describing how women can reclaim the word from their abusers, would make headlines? “I didn’t realise it would spark news, just like when I spoke out about systemic racism in the police. This isn’t news. Māori know it’s not news, and they know it’s not news because it happens to them every day. But I had media calls for days on end,” she said. “NewsHub rang me and I said this isn’t a big thing. They said it’s a big thing for a co-leader to say. But is it a big thing for a Māori co-leader to say?”

Well, we can put the answer in numbers. In 2013 JustSpeak found 46 percent of Māori who were apprehended for dangerous or negligent acts were prosecuted. And Pākehā apprehended for the same crime? Only 9 percent were prosecuted. “Even Mike Bush came in to talk,” Davidson said. “And he agreed that there’s a problem.” Is that progress? “Well, what I realised is both of those issues [the C word and systemic racism in the police] reaffirmed the power of this platform. I can speak out and people will hear, and it’s really important for political leaders to connect with people this way, speaking to their everyday experiences.”

It’s the other C word again. Connect. This is the activist searching for alliances. Before entering Parliament Davidson was already prominent in social and the Māori media, an activist and advocate connecting causes as diverse as children’s rights and West Papuan independence. But can her activism survive the transition to Parliament? “I think it’s important for politicians to, when and as appropriate, join the people and respond to the people, but not necessarily try to be The People”. It’s a philosophical answer. In leftist terms it means after entering Parliament your relationship to power changes. Activists build power. Politicians wield it.

It’s also an answer reinforcing how unlikely a co-leader Davidson really is. For her, politics isn’t only about pragmatic insiders – that is, MPs – it’s about movements too. “That’s where power comes from. It’s where people can create the conditions for change. It’s the [main] reason we’ve had an end to new offshore oil and gas permits. The reason that happened is because of years and years of activism.” Quite true.

“Our job – the job of government – is to take guidance from that grassroots. Governments aren’t just here to simply manage, or worse to pander, to the privileged and wealthy few”.

The socialist and ex-Green member in me is sold (again). But does this mean she feels out of place in Parliament? Yes and no. “The lives we lead here [in Parliament] aren’t grassroots lives, so we need to maintain our connections. I’m lucky in the sense that I can turn to my neighbourhood, community, and family.” You’ll notice the C word is back, and so I offer a different one. Are the governing parties in crisis? In an MMP government everything is a negotiation, she says, a politician’s answer. “We’re all trying to work through [our] differences, but also work out our common ground too.”

It’s a nice, clean answer. I suspect Davidson is wilier than she lets on. She can work the media as well as any politician – one former Green staffer told me in 2016 and 2017 Davidson scored more media mentions than any other caucus member, minus the co-leaders – it’s just she’s not all that interested in coverage for coverage’s sake. Her pitch for the Green co-leadership went something like this. The Greens are back, but we’re badly diminished, and the only way to rebuild is from the base up. She didn’t run as the media-friendly candidate. She ran as the members’ candidate.

But governing sometimes makes rebuilding that much harder. In June prominent members were in revolt after the government’s decision to approve a Chinese-owned company’s application to purchase sensitive land in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. The company – Cresswell NZ Ltd – is planning to draw and export up to a billion litres from one the region’s richest aquifer. The members were in fits. Several Māori members quit. “I didn’t like it, and Eugenie didn’t like.” The law was a dud, Davidson said.

But Sage’s hands were tied. Cresswell’s application satisfied the statutory criteria. But that doesn’t change the hurt it caused members, Davidson said, and the hurt it caused Ngāti Awa. “I need to go and just front it, let [Ngāti Awa] bear their anger.” It was a making or breaking moment for Davidson – at least among Māori – and she went to the Green’s annual conference in August with policy to ensure it never happens again. Her policy – a water test – would give Ministers the power to consider water issues when deciding whether to approve or decline applications like Cresswell’s.

And the government is promising to consider the policy as part of the Overseas Investment Act’s upcoming review, an opening win for the new(ish) co-leader. But will Davidson’s other policies take? This week the party hit the road, campaigning in town and city centres to lift benefit levels and end sanctions, à la former co-leader Metiria Turei. The policy enjoys support from Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), and Whaea Jackie Clark from The Aunties. Yet the Coalition – meaning Labour as New Zealand First as the government – appear to be doing their best to ignore it.

The campaign itself is a neat example of Davidson’s approach to politics. The usual script goes something like this: brief the media sometime before launching, sending the draft policy to a prominent member(s) of the press gallery who’ll foreshadow it in a story or column; the launch itself follows from here, and the party run different media angles off the policy from day to day or week to week. AAAP put up ‘talent’ to talk to the policy (e.g. a beneficiary). CPAG release figures supporting the policy. Questions are asked in the House. Etc. But Davidson is taking the policy, first, to beneficiaries themselves, and second, to community groups. Media seem a distant third.

Maybe this is misguided. The headlines after the AM Show certainly did damage. I suspect what the campaign is about is “presence”, a word she uses to explain why the Greens will stand in the Māori seats in 2020. “I hope we’ll stand in all seven. The only barrier is whether we can get seven candidates, but politically we’re right behind it. It’s a priority for our campaign, understanding and acknowledging the enduring value of the Māori vote and how our Green Party vision, charter and policy rely on having buy in from Māori communities.”

“It’s about presence”.

This gets at one of the unspoken tensions between Parliamentary politics and Māori politics. For Davidson – and most Māori politicians – whakapapa organises their world. You can identify this in their discursive habits. Davidson talks about “connection”. Māori seat MPs talk about being “kanohi kitea”. Connection means establishing whakapapa relationships – human and natural – and kanohi kitea means nurturing them. Policy is only worthy if it can establish and nurture whakapapa. This is as true for the Green’s welfare policy as it is for, say, Labour’s Māori-Crown partnership policy (the whakapapa relationship is right there in the name, even).

I figure this is why some commentators struggle to really “get” Marama Davidson. Or most Māori politician for that matter. They’re either written off as “naïve” – Marama Davidson – “low profile” or “lazy” – Nanaia Mahuta – or “arrogant” – Shane Jones and Hone Harawira. But the criticisms only hold if you think Māori politicians work in one world (the commentator’s). In truth, they’re working two. That makes the criticism unfair. But it still stings, even if you can reason it away. How do you protect your wairua when people are coming at you like this?

“I don’t know if I’ve done that well”, said Davidson. “There need to be spaces where I can be just me… You need space where you can walk around in your pyjamas. But apart from that it’s the people who come through and say ‘thank you’. That reminds you that this work is important, and it helps your wairua balance. This is why people making contact is so important. I always say to them you have no idea how important it is that you’ve reached out.”

It’s about connection.

This interview first appeared on māui street.

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