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The white chessman flies in the sky

PoliticsMarch 24, 2017

Amateurish games are turning the Māori seats into the irrelevancy Don Brash says they are

The white chessman flies in the sky

From the Māori-Mana deal to the Labour no-list gambit, short-sighted strategies risk excluding Māori voters from the conversation about Māori aspirations, writes Graham Cameron

The popular analogy for the Māori seats in the last year has been Game of Thrones. However, outside the number of kingdoms and the genuine dislike people seem to have for each other, the analogy falls flat; Game of Thrones is about seven key families who have devoted generations of strategising to gain power while the manoeuvring of the major parties for the Māori seats is more like the level of skill you see in a primary school chess club.

Chess is an ancient game of strategy and if you have played it with any regularity you will know the best players in the world hold a number of complete games in their heads that allow them to respond to any given situation. Unfortunately the strategists in the Māori Party, the Mana Party, Labour and the Greens are clearly not those people.

To much fanfare, the Māori Party have joined forces with the Mana Party in a deal brokered by Māori Party president Tukuroirangi Morgan. That has been followed by the unveiling of high profile candidates like Howie Tamati in Te Tai Hauāuru, Rāhui Papa in Hauraki Waikato, and of course Hone Harawira in Te Tai Tokerau. The unfortunate loss of Willie Jackson and Sir Mark Solomon, whom the Māori Party had hoped would be candidates for Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Tai Tonga respectively, leaves a gaping hole in their plan for a clean sweep. This is the strategy of a player who is only seeing one or two moves ahead; these selections are great for the national political relevance of the Kīngitanga but terrible for the long term prospects of the party.

Partners in pact: Marama Fox and Hone Harawira at the Auckland University Debsoc debate

Marama Fox is the Māori Party’s greatest asset: popular among youth; an activist on issues of importance to Māori; indomitable in the fight. But she is a list MP and will be standing in Ikaroa Rāwhiti which she lost by 5,000 votes at the last election. If Te Ururoa Flavell and Hone Harawira get in without a demonstrable increase in the party vote, Marama is leaving parliament. And an increase is unlikely: the Māori Party received only 1.4 percent of the party vote at the last election and never more than 2.4 percent previously. Even in the Māori seats their party vote share stays around 13 percent, barely edging New Zealand First for popularity. Losing Marama will be a disaster for a party whose future relies on the substantial urban Māori and rangatahi vote, yet under this plan would be left with a face of older Māori males with predominantly iwi and marae connections.

Labour has a developing problem of the party vote in the Māori seats derived from benign neglect. It turns out that Labour is not a party with Māori aspirations at its heart. Labour’s heart is the battleground for Pākehā identity: the last remnants of once powerful unions versus a social issues oriented urban liberal elite. Labour Māori MPs seem to occupy a dystopian wasteland between the two. Whether by choice or by decree, the Labour Māori MPs have been left to their own devices with no list placings and if the last general election is anything to go by, little practical support in the campaign.

Labour wants to win the national election and so the problem for the Māori MPs is that Labour only needs the party vote out of the Māori seats and they are resourcing and rewarding the people who can get that for them. Labour is troubled by the dropping party vote in recent elections: in every Māori seat in the last decade Labour’s party vote has dropped by about 15 points. Their response seems to be to rely on a few media-savvy Māori with a national profile rather than with the hard working local Māori MP.

Not one Māori electorate MP will take a list placing this year. Labour argues this means voters will know they can’t get “two for one” in a Māori electorate by party voting Labour and electing an MP from another party. This smacks of revisionism; all those Māori MPs were in line for low list placings, a stark humiliation given the arrival of a smiling Willie Jackson into the fold. Andrew Little’s offer of a high list placing to Willie Jackson is an indication of a national rather than local strategy and a sign that Labour believes he shores up the urban Māori party vote in Auckland. If you were a Labour Māori MP with no list placing, the message must be clear: winning the Māori electorate seats is only a matter of historical pride, not necessity. While Labour might see this as the pragmatism needed to win elections, they seem unaware that Māori voters are catching on that they are expendable.

Willie Jackson is likely to feature high on the Labour list. Screengrab: Maori Television

Meanwhile the Greens, led by one of the most capable Māori MPs and with a high profile urban Māori activist in their midst, have managed to squander the opportunity and continue to be a non-entity in the Māori seats. Māori people in the electorates generally vote for people they are related to, for whānau names they recognise, or in line with their whānau political tradition. Co-leader Metiria Turei’s lukewarm statements that she is standing in Te Tai Tonga for the party vote is not going to persuade any voter; she may as well don a T-shirt with an arrow pointing left that says “vote for him”.

These avid players are turning the Māori seats into the irrelevancy that Don Brash says they are; their games against each other exclude Māori voters from the conversation about Māori aspirations. That faith won’t be restored by out-witting your political opponents, but it might be restored by parties who sit face to face, listen to what Māori voters want them to do, and then go and do it. It’s called populism and surprisingly you don’t need a fake tan to do it.

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