Māori need more than just loud voices and ‘colourful characters’ – we need thought leaders, writes Haimona Gray
Imagine you are the child of two famous political dynasties. Now imagine one of these families has been responsible for reducing cigarette smoking in your community at a world leading rate. Imagine someone from this same family submitted the successful bill to legalise marriage equality and has been a vocal advocate for LGBTIQ. Quite an impressive family you’ve got there, congrats.
Now let’s talk about your other family. While famous for bravado and “calling it like they see it” this family has belittled sexual assault survivors, has wasted taxpayer money on underwear, and has spent their time in parliament pulling the fingers and little else. Not exactly a family you’d be proud to call your own.
Sadly, for young Māori looking for leadership this isn’t a hypothetical, this is our reality.
What does this mean? Maybe we’ve focused on what we have perceived as leadership characteristics, maybe we’ve just allowed ourselves to focus on the loudest voices over the most thoughtful. Whatever the reason, the outcomes have been as clear as what we must do next. It’s time for the patriarchy to take a seat, our wahine have got this, and they have had it for quite some time.
What does leadership mean? I have kept the definition unfairly narrow to avoid confusion and the inevitable hate mail I am going to receive. For the sake of this article I am discussing only elected or popularly appointed leaders – members of parliament and those in elected positions with the ability to affect government or societal change at a large scale.
While influential iwi leaders such as Mark Solomon, and great academic advocates like Sir Mason Durie have brought great mana to our people, they have achieved their success through merit and dedication, not through appealing to a greater Māori populous. Why does this matter? In spite of what the likes of Don Brash and his allies may believe, Māori influence in political and governmental decision making is very small. As a minority group attempting to address great challenges such as poor educational, employment and health outcomes, our ability to absorb or entertain ineffective leadership is narrow. We are the antithesis of a giant multinational bank, we are too small to fail ourselves.
As a Māori male my life expectancy is seven years lower than that of a pākehā male my age, and I’m one of the fortunate sons. For my whānau, who never left our rohe, who never went out and did a slightly fanciful university degree, who aren’t as good at passing the tests in a world which demands it, the numbers are even worse.
There are ways to address these appalling numbers – tackling cross-ethnic issues which affect those at the bottom the hardest (high smoking rates, poor education options, lack of affordable housing etc), supporting wrap-around whānau-focused services such as Whānau Ora, compelling government departments to seriously engage with Māori communities – but all of these require the ability and the will to communicate and discuss these policies with Māori communities.
Labour signalled its interest in this space, as would be expected of the default party for many Māori, by adding Willie Jackson as the defacto head of its Māori caucus earlier this year. Jackson has indeed been involved groups attempting to address poor Māori outcomes. He replaced his mother as the leader of the Manukau Urban Māori Authority and has been a board member of a charter school seeking to provide a high-quality education to under supported Māori in South Auckland. Yet his selection appears to have more to do with his blokey media profile and assurances to Labour’s leadership that he can bring a large swathe of underrepresented and under-empowered urban Māori to the party.
We will not know until after the next election whether the former talkback host is all talk, or only partially, but regardless his return to political prominence promises a return to the politics of Māori masculinity. A politics in which “calling it like you see it” and being the most vocal and combative voice is valued at a near Auckland housing price level.
This is not solely a Labour issue, but the party of the Foreshore & Seabed Act decisions to ostracise Tariana Turia and ignore the vital contributions of current MP Louisa Wall are telling to the Māori community. The message is clear – Māori leaders need to be talkers and dealers, not heroes of the dispossessed and discriminated against. Forgive me for finding this all a little sad.
As the great Māori health leader, Dr Irihapeti Ramsden, once stated with both concern and pride, Maori have always been more than just warriors: “once were gardeners, once were astronomers, once were philosophers, once were lovers”.
It is time for Māoridom to empower leaders who embody this history – carers, cryers, lovers of those who have faced similar discrimination to that which we face.
We need more than just loud voices and “colourful characters”, we need thought leaders.
If our male leaders are incapable of fitting this model, we need our wahine to fill the deficit, and we need to support them to do so.
Haimona Gray (Ngati Kahungunu) is a public relations consultant working in the Māori, NGO and health industries.
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