Labour's Māori caucus after the 2017 general election. Image: RNZ / Jane Patterson

What does Budget 2019 mean for Labour’s Māori seats in 2020?

Labour’s Māori MPs should count their lucky stars Te Ururoa Flavell is busy doing other things, writes māui street‘s Morgan Godfery.

It’s a mug’s game making a call about the general election more than a year out from polling day. If an election were held tomorrow Labour would almost certainly return with its seven-seat monopoly in the Māori electorates. The Coalition – that’s Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens providing confidence and supply – would surely return in one form or another as well. National Party leader Simon Bridges would lose. That’s one call I’ll make today, tomorrow, and in a year’s time.

I’ll also make another call and stand by it come the 2020 general election. One of the most inspired things the incoming government did in 2017/2018 is appoint Te Ururoa Flavell, the former Māori Party co-leader, to the top job at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. Flavell, who spent three years as minister for Māori development and 12 years in Parliament, stood down as co-leader in late 2017 and took up the CEO seat at the Wā in mid-2018. There are a couple reasons to welcome this, especially if you’re a Labour MP. First, Flavell is perfectly suited to the job – there really is no better candidate – and second, it keeps busy the biggest threat to that seven-seat monopoly in Māori electorates.

One thing Budget 2018 reinforced is how fragile Labour’s seven seats are. Te Puni Kōkiri’s budget was cut, Whānau Ora funding remained flat, and the targeted funds that were secured (think of He Poutama Rangatahi) were so small in the scheme of an almost $100b budget as not to matter in the PR battle. And in that PR battle Labour’s Māori caucus caught all hell. John Tamihere wrote in the New Zealand Herald “for the first time in decades, Budget 2018 actually took money away from Māori.” Māori Party president Che Wilson said it was a “kick in the guts”, criticising the apparent “mainstreaming” of Māori funding. “This will not go unnoticed by Māori in the community,” Merepeka Raukawa-Tait warned.

Personally, I thought the criticism was probably a little unfair. Labour’s Māori caucus argued universal funding is as effective and if not more so than targeted funding, citing measures like the Families Package. The $2b package included cash payments for new parents to help with raising their kids and cash payments for beneficiaries and pensioners to help with winter energy costs. It’s true that that funding will make a greater difference to Māori lives than any targeted (and necessarily small) funding. The trouble for Labour’s Māori caucus is that argument didn’t appear to convince. Negative headline still followed negative headline.

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That left Labour’s Māori ministers with a stark choice: stay the “universal” course and take another PR hit in 2019 or bid and bid again for targeted funding. They chose the second option (naturally) securing half a billion in targeted funding in this year’s budget. On the one hand it’s a great win, it’ll make an enormous difference to people’s lives, and on the other it’s an admission the critics of Budget 2018 might have just been right. Or at least that they hit a nerve in Māori politics. If the “mainstreaming” approach in Budget 2018 was popular it’s likely the Māori ministers would have stayed the course in this budget. But the truth is mainstreaming alone is remarkably unpopular.

It’s not a mistake that many old people look back with fond memories to the old Department of Māori Affairs and its dedicated housing schemes, business loans, and employment training programmes just for Māori. The universal and targeted must go together, and one shouldn’t come at the expense of the other. This is a reminder for the Māori Party that they’re in a stronger position than they might realise. Yes, Labour’s Māori MPs are personally popular and they’re delivering the political wins. And yes, prime minister Jacinda Ardern can carry those MPs even if their popularity takes a dive or the wins stop. But the Māori Party can still shape the debate and conversation. Budget 2019 would probably look a bit different if people like Che Wilson hadn’t hit that mainstreaming nerve.

With that in mind it’s probably not going too far to say the 2020 election might look a lot different too if people like Te Ururoa Flavell were available to contest it.

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