A still from the Māori MPs debate held on The Hui on Monday 10 June, 2024.
Māori MPs debate on The Hui Monday 10 June 2024. (Photo: The Hui)

ĀteaJune 13, 2024

From the kāuta: analysis of a surprise Māori MPs debate

A still from the Māori MPs debate held on The Hui on Monday 10 June, 2024.
Māori MPs debate on The Hui Monday 10 June 2024. (Photo: The Hui)

A passionate if uninspiring debate, writes Liam Rātana.

Was it a special political panel or was it a debate? Semantics aside, five of the six political parties currently in parliament were represented in a very well organised, yet somewhat predictable kōrero produced by Māori current affairs show The Hui on Monday night.

Hosted by veteran broadcaster Julian Wilcox, the debate featured Tākuta Ferris from Te Pāti Māori, Dana Kirkpatrick of National, Act’s Karen Chhour, Tamatha Paul from the Greens, and Labour’s Willie Jackson. NZ First was the only party unable to field a sitting MP.

Despite the debate taking place only six months after the election, it did seem a timely conversation given the current political climate. The budget has just been released with claims there is nothing in it for Māori. Mass protests took place around the country in response to a raft of government policies that have been labelled anti-Māori. There are several ongoing investigations into organisations closely affiliated with Te Pāti Māori candidate Takutai Moana Natasha Kemp and president John Tamihere. Tensions are high.

The debate set-up was hard to fault. The studio was a mix of neutral colours such as greys, whites, and tans, except for Wlicox’s rose gold tie. There was no audience, minimal graphics, and each candidate seemed to have an equal opportunity to respond to questions without major disruptions, bar a couple of exceptions.

There were several issues up for discussion in the debate: the budget, treaty principles, the Waitangi Tribunal, fast track legislation, protests, a Māori parliament, and employment. For the most part, the politicians all towed their respective party lines well and didn’t sway too far from what was to be expected.

The budget

Wilcox opened the debate by allowing each candidate to sum up the budget in one word: Ferris labelled it “assimilative”, while Kirkpatrick said it was “inclusive”. Chhour copied Kirkpatrick while Paul from the Greens felt “greed” was an apt summary. Jackson labelled it “disgraceful” and was the first to give an explanation behind their answer. 

“You’ve had the worst broken promise in the history of budgets… They’ve prioritised tax cuts over people’s lives” he said, referring to the government’s backtrack on its election promise of funding for 13 new cancer treatment drugs

Julian WIlcox wearing a black suit, white shirt, and rose gold tie.
Julian Wilcox and his rose gold tie. (Photo: The Hui)

The left initially hung its hat on the budget being only for the rich and having nothing in it for the working class or Māori but the focus seems to have since shifted to the lack of funding for the promised cancer drugs. Jackson doubled down on this, questioning how many people will die before the drugs are funded.

The Greens stuck to the original plan. “The only winners in this budget are people who are already wealthy,” Paul said.

Karen Chhour has clearly had a lot of media training since entering parliament. Her debate performance was quite a contrast from when I first interviewed her back in 2020 and was left wondering how the fuck she made it to parliament. Chhour appeared confident in her answers and did not shy away from the sticky points, such as the government still needing to borrow money to fund its budget promises. But she kept awkwardly gazing at the camera like she was making an ad when responding to questions. She also appeared the most reliant on her notes, constantly looking at them when talking, which didn’t bode well for authenticity or a genuine belief in the message being delivered.

Waitangi Tribunal and Te Tiriti o Waitangi

In what was a jam packed debate, covering several meaty issues, discussion turned to the Waitangi Tribunal and its pending review. Kirkpatrick remained neutral and didn’t give away anything of great substance. Jackson questioned what was behind the review, called Shane Jones Julian Wilcox’s uncle, and stated his pride for the tribunal and its achievements. However, he had a slight faux pas when questioning whether or not the Crown was worth trusting, with Wilcox interjecting: “But you were the Crown.”

Paul described how the tribunal was set up to address the failings of the Crown and the ongoing failure to change key determinants relating to Māori wellbeing. “This Crown has failed Māori disproportionately,” she said.

Probably the strongest performer of the debate, Ferris claimed the tribunal was set up to be the conscience of the country. He also said the tribunal had been constantly evolving and that it might be time for it to evolve again, before plugging a private members’ bill he has in the biscuit tin that would apparently allow the tribunal to make binding recommendations. 

Wilcox asked the politicians whether the tribunal should have binding powers. Kirkpatrick and Chhour both claimed that the Waitangi Tribunal making binding recommendations would be undemocratic and that was what elections were for. 

What all those present failed to acknowledge was the tribunal already has the power to make binding recommendations, in limited instances. In its 50 year history, the Waitangi Tribunal has only once, in the Turangi Township Remedies Report in 1998, exercised its powers of binding recommendation. The government of the day then threatened to disestablish the tribunal and advised it to never make a binding recommendation again.

Fast-track Approvals Bill

The Fast-track Approvals Bill was next. Jackson was facepalming himself and Ferris scoffed as Chhour spoke about the “process” that would be in place with the bill. The problem with the process, Jackson claimed, was that the three ministers in charge with veto powers were perceived as being corrupt. Paul said her generation (a different generation to everyone else at the table) would not allow the destruction of the environment, planet or native species.

WIllie Jackson facepalms himself during the Māori MPs debate as Karen Chhour speaks.
WIllie Jackson facepalms himself as Karen Chhour speaks. (Photo: The Hui)

Probably one of the most relevant points during the debate on the fast track legislation was raised by Kirkpatrick, who highlighted the fact there were a number of post-settlement governance entities on the list of organisations invited to apply for fast track consent. Māori-owned projects, particularly in the aquaculture space, were likely to benefit from the legislation.

At this point, Chhour had to leave the debate to catch a flight. 

Social sentiment and a Māori parliament

Wilcox said the idea of a Māori parliament seemed to some like the tossing of toys due to Te Pāti Māori not being in government. Ferris responded by saying Te Tiriti o Waitangi was the cornerstone of democracy in Aotearoa and change was needed. Jackson was against the idea of a separate parliament but supported Tā Mason Durie’s idea of a separate Māori congress. Paul also said it was time to do away with the Westminster system of governance.

When it came to the Treaty Principles Bill, Kirkpatrick confirmed National would support the bill for the first reading but not beyond that.  “There’d just about be a civil war,” Jackson said about the government’s policy changes and pending bill.

The only slip from an otherwise impeccable Ferris came when he began talking about the leadership of the parties in the current coalition government. Ferris labelled all of the leaders Pākehā but Jackson soon reminded him that some were Māori. In fact, 50% of the leaders and deputies in the current government have Māori whakapapa. There are over 33 Māori MPs across the House. Wilcox described it as “Te Tiriti manifest”.

The debate finished on employment, with Kirkpatrick singing about investment and a necessary reset. Paul criticised the public service cuts and flow-on effects, as did Jackson, who said the government was hypocritical.

By the end of the debate, Willie Jackson looked ready to go home for a snooze and kept checking his watch. Kirkpatrick toed the party line well but was uninspiring and not very memorable. Paul had been solid overall but stumbled near the end when questioned about being a member of a system she did not endorse and about her solutions to the country’s economic issues. Ferris was the top performer, answering with the most passion and precision, bar his whakapapa faux pas.

Keep going!