L-R: Former Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox, The Opportunities Party leader Geoff Simmons, former Māori Party co-leader (and current Te Wānanga o Aotearoa chief executive) Te Ururoa Flavell.

The Māori Party and TOP: dream team or disaster?

The parties founded by Tariana Turia and Gareth Morgan both failed to make parliament at the last election, and now there’s talk of a collaboration to turn that around. Māui Street editor Morgan Godfery asks whether it might bear fruit.

Big news via TVNZ:

TOP and the Māori Party could be allies in the next election, with talks in place over the possibility of working together.
It comes after Māori Party president Che Wilson told Rātana church leaders there was an aim to collaborate with TOP.
“We are entering into a conversation to see what are the fruits of working together,” he said. “At the moment it’s a pretty blank sheet, we will work through different options and we will be doing that over the next couple of months. We’re not going to rush into anything.”

He would not rule out a united party, “but it’s definitely not a priority.”

Geoff Simmons, leader of TOP, told TVNZ1’s Te Karere it could be an opportunity for both parties, which he said had “an awful lot in common.”

My advice: drop the idea. It’s tempting for party bureaucrats and leaders to identity problems with retrospective tactics. We were short of activists on the ground. We were short of big-time donors. We were squeezed out of the public conversation. But the Māori Party’s long-running problem is strategic. It’s unclear where it even fits in that public conversation. In its first four years, cast as Labour’s antagonist. In its governing years, condemned as a National Party puppet. And its final years in competition with its own breakaway party. “The Māori Party” never meant more than when cast against another.

Collaborating with TOP only reinforces this. Sure, there are decent reasons for partnering up – whether it’s for exposure, technical support, or resource sharing – but a partnership of that kind or another only obscures the weakness at the party’s heart. It’s without an independent identity. You could argue this is inevitable. We’re always going to understand a minor party according to which major party it’s sharing the pae with. Are you red or blue? But, for Māori Party, the problem isn’t so much whether it’s leaning Labour or National at any given moment, but why it’s leaning one way and not another.

Think about it this way. Can you articulate what the Māori Party stands for, other than “Māori”? The obvious answer is tino rangatiratanga, but securing tino rangatiratanga from within the kāwanatanga is a contradiction in terms. Kāwanatanga is a derivative power. The chiefs who signed the Treaty in 1840 were using their rangatiratanga to fashion kāwanatanga, not the other way around, making a Parliamentary party in its pursuit an impossibility. This isn’t to say standing simply for “Māori” doesn’t do valuable discursive work – it does – instead it’s to say this isn’t enough.

Ideology must underpin any political project. Not ideology in its pejorative, as an indestructible commitment to One Way, but ideology as a system of ideas, ideals, and strategies to see them through. This is what the Māori Party lacks, and this is one reason the party struggles to establish its independent identity. Collaborating with TOP, or even Mana, might help establish important whakapapa relationships, but collaborating for tactical reasons doesn’t address the loudest absence: a whakapapa of ideas.

At the last election (and the election before that, and the election before that) the Māori Party leaders mistook the means – “sitting at the table” – as their end. Their chief argument was this: Māori must have someone at the table no matter the government, and we’re it. This is quite fine in and of itself. It makes a good deal of sense. I mean, it worked well enough too. In their nine years in power the party and its leaders repealed and replaced the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, implemented Whānau Ora, and quietly negotiated all kinds of legislative amendments and regulatory concessions, from the two-year slog to include iwi consultation in National’s RMA reforms to the Independent Māori Statutory Board in the Auckland Supercity reforms.

But these “wins”, as the party leaders rightly framed them, relied on soul-sucking persuasion and negotiation. Or, in other words, on the extraordinary personal mana and skills of Dame Tariana Turia, Sir Pita Sharples, and Te Ururoa Flavell. Unlike National, where businesses help see through their agenda, or Labour, where unions and activists help, the Māori Party couldn’t call on their own power base to help force through their agenda. TOP isn’t a useful sidekick here either, given the Gareth Morgan party suffers from a nearly identical problem. Without an ideology to articulate, a movement – like, say, “iwi” – has very little to cohere and organise around.

This is where TOP struggles too. Very few people vote for a party promising competent technocracy, just as very few people vote for a party promising the best backroom deals for Māori. Some kind of ideology must sustain it first. There are plenty of thinkers in the Māori Party who can articulate that ideology, from the impressive Chris McKenzie to well-known writer Carrie Stoddart-Smith, but they must have the chance to do that in public, and the hopefully soon-to-be-elected co-leaders must do it too. If not, there’s no way back for the party in 2020, even if they’re hand in hand with a cashed-up TOP.

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