Labour's Willie Jackson and Nanaia Mahuta. Image: RNZ & Getty

Labour to Iwi Chairs Forum: ‘Iwi leaders need to catch up with the new world’

After a fraught election, Labour’s Māori caucus is going head to head with the Iwi Chairs Forum.

The change of government has signaled a profound change in iwi relationships with the Crown. In the past 17 years, the corporate iwi model was the power ascendent at the Iwi Chairs Forum, and has proven to be the Crown’s preferred expression of the Treaty partnership. Signs are that is in for a shake up.

Prior to our Waitangi commemorations this year, shots were fired across the bow by both Labour and the Iwi Chairs Forum (ICF). The content of the actual ICF presentation to Ministers at Waitangi suggests that the ICF were the first to blink.

The election was a poor omen for the ICF relationship with Labour. The Kīngitanga-backed campaign of Rāhui Papa against Nanaia Mahuta saw key players with multiple roles in the Kīngitanga, the Māori Party and the ICF lined up against her: Rāhui Papa was her opponent, the māngai for our King and co-chair of the ICF Pou Tangata sub-committee; Willie Te Aho is on many trusts in Waikato Tainui, a Treaty negotiator and is an ICF forum advisor; Naida Glavish is a Māori Party stalwart (and past president) and co-chair of Pou Tangata; Tukuroirangi Morgan had his fingers in all of those pies.

So it is no surprise that soon after the confirmation of the Labour coalition government, Minister of Māori Development Nanaia Mahuta was gunning for the ICF. At their November 2017 meeting, she was blunt in her assessment of their efforts:

“I don’t think people in the room if they had their hand on heart would say to us that the way in which the forum has been operating has been entirely satisfactory.”

To say that publicly, to not then follow up in the media with any mollifying remarks and caveats is, in the world of tāngata whenua, very direct and challenging. We discuss and debate away from the public gaze; when we don’t it’s deliberate.

The ICF responded by asserting their influence. They wrote a letter about Labour’s policy to end charter schools and suggested they would use the avenues available to them, like the Waitangi Tribunal, to disrupt it.

Nanaia is not a brawler. After her whanaunga tried to unseat her and failed, Nanaia’s star has risen in Labour and in Māori circles. She has an enhanced mana about her these days.

But a brawler was needed. And it seems to me that Willie Jackson and Shane Jones were then released to show the Labour coalition’s teeth to the ICF.

Willie and his erstwhile companion John Tamihere have often been critical of the vice grip that iwi have on power and resources. It doesn’t seem to me that they have any particular objections to the money and influence that they wield, they just think that urban Māori should wield the same money and influence. They don’t like that the ICF act as gatekeepers.

So it was in keeping with his long held views when Willie declared the ICF didn’t speak for urban Māori in Auckland.

“They don’t represent my people, the vast majority of people who live in Auckland. The people I’ve represented through the years have been people in the city and many times iwi leadership has acted against their interests because we’ve seen so little coming back to people who live in the cities.”

The Māori Caucus in Labour are now large and influential. The Rātana visit and the week at Waitangi confirm to me that nothing happens between Labour and iwi and Māori that the Labour Māori Caucus have not helped plan, guide and/or lead.

There are two scenarios here.

One: Willie Jackson, without consultation or reference to others, made a very strident statement that offended the ICF members and leadership. Even though it was unplanned front page news, the Labour Party leadership decided to make no response, not even a “this does not reflect the views of the Labour Party.”

That’s possible. It might also be the first time a political party has just let an unplanned, potentially scandalous comment alone.

There’s a second scenario too: Willie was asked, or was given the go-ahead, to comment. Labour received the ICF letter on charter schools and understood that the ICF hadn’t got their head around the change in their fortunes. The subtext of Willie’s comments is that the Labour coalition government will not be led by the nose by the ICF and will give tāngata whenua voices like urban Māori greater influence because they get Labour’s priorities.

In this world of highly controlled political communication, I find the latter more likely. I’ve asked the Minister, but not received any comment one way or the other.

In case they missed the point, Forestry Minister Shane Jones then hit one of the ICF’s sacred cows in response to Willie Te Aho’s threats of Supreme Court action on water. He commented that their threats meant that “Halley’s comet would be back” before he would meet with the ICF.

And the ICF got the message. When they looked over their shoulder they saw that their only friends were Todd Muller and Bill English. So they changed the tone. No more bluster about a showdown at Waitangi. No more threats or letters.

Their presentation to the Labour goverment at Waitangi was a tangible demonstration of the shift in power.

National Ministers, often without prompting, were known to spend long periods with the group; one they considered the most powerful lobby in Aotearoa New Zealand.

At the completion of their presentation to Jacinda Ardern and her Ministers, the ICF prepared themselves to leave. After some quiet negotiations, some of the Māori ministers remained behind. But not the Prime Minister.

I have heard some suggestions from those close to iwi leaders that this was an example of Labour not understanding or not valuing tāngata whenua. That is naive. Labour are well advised by Māori MPs and staff; very little is unplanned.

If you look at the election results in the Māori electorates, in the general electorates with a large Māori population and in the party vote, it is apparent that Labour have found their feet again amongst Māori. They have rediscovered their voice to speak directly to tāngata whenua.

Unlike National, they don’t need the iwi leaders to speak to tāngata whenua in their communities throughout Aotearoa. Labour seems to believe that it has the mana and the capacity to speak for themselves on the political paepae.

It is iwi leaders who need to catch up with the new world. Iwi success in fisheries, forestry, farming and property haven’t changed the daily circumstances for most tāngata whenua.

Labour have seen clearly what iwi leaders have missed and it brought them into government. Watch the run up to the election in 2020: the fight to be the representative of Māori communities has only just begun. Whereas iwi business acumen opened doors before, it may be that iwi and Māori communities who show excellence in transforming the lives of their poorest that have the quick pass to the ninth floor now.

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