Māori protests have been effective throughout history (Image design: Tina Tiller)
Māori protests have been effective throughout history (Image design: Tina Tiller)

ĀteaMay 30, 2024

A turning point for Māori activism

Māori protests have been effective throughout history (Image design: Tina Tiller)
Māori protests have been effective throughout history (Image design: Tina Tiller)

Māori have a history of protest through activism, but some say advocacy and lobbying is more effective. Ātea editor Liam Rātana reports.

Today, tens of thousands of New Zealanders will be impacted by a nationwide protest, labelled an “activation” by organisers and “illegal” by the prime minister. People around Aoteraoa are participating in hīkoi, car convoys, strikes and other actions to make known their disdain for a raft of government changes, including the repeal of section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act, moves to replace or repeal Treaty principles clauses from laws, the Fast-track Approvals Bill, repeal of the Māori Health Authority, referendums on Māori wards in local councils, and moves to relegate Māori names of government agencies.

But how effective will the actions really be?

Māori have long adopted activism as a means of making a point, and protests, especially marches, remain a popular method for spreading a message or drawing attention to a movement. But recently, advocacy behind closed doors has grown in popularity as a form of lobbying for Māori. This is especially true for those in the upper echelons of well-established iwi or other Māori authorities – but those involved in flaxroots movements don’t always agree with how the top brass operate, and vice-versa.

Both activism and advocacy are ways of achieving social and political change but they differ in approach, goals and outcomes. Activism involves direct actions like protests and rallies, often through public confrontation and grassroots movements like today’s activation – which usually attract more publicity than lobbying behind closed doors in parliament. 

The Māori Land March, Bastion Point and Ihumātao are all classic examples of activist movements that have drawn attention to different causes. As was the case with Ihumātao, the intense public interest and pressure was effective in bringing about change.  

Land protectors face to face with police at Ihumātao, July 26, 2019. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty

In contrast, advocacy focuses on strategic influence over time, using methods like lobbying, policy analysis and public education to create long-term, sustainable change within existing systems and structures. While activism seeks rapid transformation by challenging the status quo, advocacy aims to inform and persuade policymakers to implement lasting solutions. 

Some examples of powerful yet not so highly publicised outcomes from advocacy include changes to our national curriculum taught in schools, Ngā Tamatoa and its Māori language petition, Ngāi Tahu having representation on local authorities enshrined in legislation, a chapter providing specific rights to Māori in the NZ-EU free-trade deal, and the allocation of long-term rights to the telecommunications spectrum. 

“The lobbying that we think is successful is activism,” says Holly Bennett, kaiwhakahaere of lobbying firm Awhi. “[But] I would argue that the lobbying that is actually more successful is considered advocacy. They all have their part to play, but we do rely heavily on the activism or activation of communities.”

Holly Bennett (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao)

While advocacy and lobbying behind closed doors is often perceived as being the more private approach, there can sometimes be a noticeable lack of front-facing leadership in activist movements. While Bishop Brian Tamaki may have been a vocal advocate of the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, there was no one officially in charge. Today’s kaupapa is similar in the sense that there is no one obviously leading what’s going on.

The Toitū Te Tiriti movement was initially reported as being behind today’s protests. The group has an online store selling merchandise designed by artist Hohepa (The HORI) Thomas and a social media campaign being led by Eru Kapa-Kingi, son of te Pāti Māori MP Mariameno Kapa-Kingi and ninth on the party’s list at the last election. Many other Māori prominent on social media have shared content and called for people to join in.

However, there are no official faces, names or contact details affiliated with Toitū Te Tiriti or listed on its website. The Spinoff first received a media release about the kaupapa earlier in the week, sent by a public relations professional who said to contact managing director of Te Kōhao Health, Lady Tureiti Moxon, who paid for the release to be written and sent out.

Lady Tureiti Moxon (Photo: RNZ)

“We’ve got Māori service providers, Pākehā service providers, the Anglican Church… and iwi at the centre,” Moxon said when asked who was organising today’s kaupapa behind-the-scenes.

However, no clear leaders were identified, and mystery remains around exactly who the orchestrators of Toitū Te Tiriti and wider mobilisations are. Bennett points to the lack of clear leadership as symptomatic of current Māori lobbying efforts. New Zealand First minister Shane Jones calls it hypocrisy. “These are people who want to remain innominate. They take money from the Crown on one hand but kick up a fuss when it doesn’t suit them,” Jones told The Spinoff.

He’s not wrong about the money part. It’s easier to lobby publicly when you have no fear of financial retribution. The likes of Groundswell NZ, Hobson’s Pledge and the Taxpayers’ Union are all privately funded entities, often backed by rich-lister donors. They are not concerned about the government cutting funding to entities they are associated with because they do not depend on government funding.

On the left side of the spectrum, particularly with Māori kaupapa, it’s a different story. While iwi do combine forces through different forums at times, they do not all share similar political leanings. This leads to many iwi preferring to fund kaupapa on a case-by-case basis. It can make the formation of a pro-Māori equivalent to lobby groups such as Hobson’s Pledge difficult.

Lobbying is therefore mostly left to pan-tribal organisations, usually based in urban areas and heavily reliant on government funding. Te Kōhao Health, which paid for the comms release this week, is one of the largest Māori primary health organisations and has received funding predominantly from the Ministry of Health, Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand, and Te Aka Whai Ora – The Māori Health Authority (now disestablished).

Moxon is also a member of the National Urban Māori Authority, a collective that includes the likes of Waipareira Trust and the Manukau Urban Māori Authority. These groups have, in the past, spent money funding campaigns instead of projects that could benefit Māori in tangible ways, such as health initiatives. It has opened them up to criticism, which then encourages the resourcing of activism in secret – something that comes with its own issues. 

Lobbying, meanwhile, is a term that often has negative connotations, bringing to mind tobacco industry shills and rich old men in suits. Investigations into lobbying from the likes of RNZ have exposed some concerning practices. However, lobbying doesn’t belong solely to the right and groups such as Greenpeace and trade unions also advocate for policies regarding the environment or workers’ rights. 

“The only way we as Māori, since the establishment of parliament, have achieved things for our people is through lobbying – which means we inherently know that it’s an important part of the democratic process,” says Bennett. “But we are not undertaking it in the way that many other groups with vested interests do it.

“We don’t have institutional knowledge around lobbying. We aren’t growing our pipeline of lobbyists and we aren’t seeing an encouragement of the next generation into this industry,” she says.

Longtime activists may see it a different way, favouring public protest over trying to influence policymakers behind closed doors. “I’m more interested in trying to bring the people, ordinary people from on the street to understand Te Tiriti than trying to talk to some dumbarse politician. It’s a waste of time,” Tāme Iti said at Waitangi this year. “I don’t think we should rely upon having these conversations with the government… I’m only interested in engagement with the masses of Aotearoa because they are the people that we need to work on. Politicians are only there for a short time.”

While thousands around the country will spend today carrying placards, waving flags and disrupting traffic, capitalism and the cogs of democracy will continue to grind away in Wellington and beyond. There is always a place for activism, but those like Bennett argue there might be more effective ways to advocate for true and lasting change.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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