They’re fielding candidates in the Māori seats for the first time in more than 20 years, but the question has to be asked – why?
The National Party made headlines when it was announced they would field Māori electorate candidates in the upcoming election for the first time since 2002. But National’s candidates face an uphill climb, with the path ahead steepened by the resurgent Te Pāti Māori and Labour’s historic indigenous seat stranglehold – but also by National itself.
During election years, political parties make policy promises to garner votes. But National hasn’t offered any packages to coalesce tangata whenua support for its Māori seat candidates. Instead, National’s Māori-centric announcements have simply rejected Labour policies: co-governance, Te Aka Whai Ora (the Māori Health Authority) and most recently, bilingual street signs.
Poking New Zealand’s biggest insecurity – ethnic relations – isn’t a strategy to win indigenous seat contests against the resurgent Te Pāti Māori and a Labour Party whose Māori caucus has made relatively significant gains for their people. Does National even want to win a Māori seat?
The party has only ever had two Māori seat MPs (Labour has five right now), both almost a century ago. When National was founded in 1936, two existing indigenous seat MPs – Taurekareka Henare and Sir Āpirana Ngata – joined the party. Henare was a one-term National Māori seat MP, losing in 1938, and Ngata won reelection in 1938 but was defeated in 1943. For the 2023 election, National has so far announced two Māori seat candidates, list MP Harete Hipango (Te Tai Hauāuru) and newcomer Hinurewa te Hau (Tāmaki Makaurau).
National contesting Māori seats at all is like Luxon playing a reverse card in a game of electoral Uno, seeing as 15 years ago, the party wanted to abolish indigenous seats altogether. However, Luxon said last week that they’re “deeply committed” to Māori, and he believes “Maori can do well” if National ruled the roost. Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi disagreed, saying, “for over 100 years, they [National] haven’t done that”.
Luxon went as far as to say he trusts empowerment through “devolution and localism“, whereby Māori design solutions to their problems. But he added, “I just don’t believe that separate systems are the way that we need to do that.” Examples of separate systems include the mainstream health service versus Te Aka Whai Ora, or a Māori parliament distinct from Wellington’s Westminster-style entity.
Rejecting separatism is why National won’t work with Te Pāti Māori. “What is obvious to me is that we have a Māori Party that is pursuing a separatist, more radical agenda,” argued Luxon. His party opposes the constitutional reform Te Pāti Māori advocates for and rejects co-governance arrangements. But many tangata whenua voters dream of both in their quest for mana motuhake and te tino rangatiratanga.
National’s stance on indigenous issues puts its tangata whenua candidates in tricky situations when it comes to toeing the party line and courting Māori seat voters. For one, the party wants to abolish Te Aka Whai Ora even though it is widely accepted – even by National’s own Tāmaki Makaurau candidate, Hinurewa te Hau – that the health system fails Māori. Te Hau acknowledges tangata whenua “are still at a disadvantage in the health system, it is not equal”. Māori die six years earlier than the average New Zealander and seven years earlier than Pākehā.
There is also the bilingual street sign debacle. National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown dug his party a hole with Māori voters when he objected to Waka Kotahi using taxpayer money to instal bilingual signs in “critical safety” areas like expressways, highways and motorways. “We speak English, they [signs] should all be in English,” said Brown. But National’s Te Tai Hauāuru candidate Hipango disagreed. “His [Brown] view is different to mine,” she said, when asked if she agreed with her party colleague. Hipango said she believed acknowledging ingoa Māori “is about acceptance and inclusion” and respected “diversity of expression”, “the context of the whenua that we come from”, the status of te reo Māori as an official language and the fact that New Zealand is a “nation premised on a treaty relationship”. Her stance was one many voters on the Māori roll would expect from candidates, so in that sense it was a good response. But as a member of the National Party, being made to publicly disagree with a party spokesperson doesn’t bode well for Hipango’s internal standing.
National’s official stances on Māori issues make it difficult for its candidates to gain support in electorates that unequivocally rejected the party last election. National averaged only 3.4% of the party vote across all the Māori electorates in 2020. It fared even worse in the two seats it is now contesting, getting 3.21% (Tāmaki) and 2.99% (Te Tai Hauāuru) of the party vote. In both electorates, the Green Party and New Zealand First got more votes than National, and in Te Tai Hauāuru, it only just beat Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross’s Advance New Zealand (2.67%).
Across all Māori electorates, National’s vote decreased by an average of 3.6 percentage points last election. This data, plus the party’s own rhetoric, might make you wonder whether or not they even want to win any Māori seats. Te Hau accepts it is improbable she will win Tāmaki Makaurau. So why run at all? Fielding candidates again is the “very first step to create a presence”, says Te Hau. No matter whether or not they want to win these contests, the National Party at large is only shooting its Māori seat candidates in the foot.