Maori party co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia with Prime Minister John Key after signing a confidence and supply agreement in 2011 (Photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images)

The true legacy of minor parties in government

The Māori Party’s time in government with National proves the impact of minor parties isn’t always measurable by the number of bills they pass or the amount of funding they secure, but also its impact on the political tone, argues Ben Thomas. 

After Tuesday’s lacklustre leader’s debate, one question hung in the air: where were Māori? Discussion of policy particularly affecting Māori, and the Treaty, were notably absent.

In a historical and limited way, this may be seen as a good thing. Bipartisan support for the Treaty settlement process (which for many years was the signal “Māori” issue in elections) and the evolving post-settlement relationship with iwi is one of the great markers of progress in New Zealand democracy over the past decade. When “Māori issues” (which were usually defined in that narrow sense) surfaced in election campaigns, it was usually as the result of divisive, populist politicking.

It’s even better that its absence was not simply noticed, but was noticeably jarring. It reflects the increasing recognition that the Treaty’s significance isn’t merely confined to the settlement process or RMA consultation, but goes much wider to the way government works in New Zealand.

In large part, we can thank the Māori Party for this, and specifically for its time in government with National.

Its influence in government may be instructive for the (seemingly large) parts of the electorate writing off voting for minor parties, as the political centre swells in density in the Labour and National parties.

John Key brought the Māori Party into his government in 2008 along with Act and United Future in order to give his government maximum leverage to its right and its centre on different issues, and as an insurance policy for future elections.

The Māori Party was much maligned by the left and its own supporters (and, during the 2008-2011 term, by one of its own MPs, Hone Harawira) for its closeness to Key. And like other minor parties in that government, its policy achievements were solid but not spectacular.

Māori Party co-leader Dame Tariana Turia created Whānau Ora, a counterpart to Bill English’s social investment strategy, that was more intuitive and based on community connections than in big data number crunching. The party secured the repeal of the hated Foreshore and Seabed Act and supported the replacement Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act.

Then Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia in 2014 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Where the Māori Party did have significant, and likely lasting, influence was in the tone of politics during that time.

With an eponymous Māori Party not just in parliament but in government, every new policy or initiative was suddenly subject to the question that was so absent from Tuesday’s debate: “what does this mean for Māori and the Treaty?”

Treaty principles compliance had long been treated at best as a litigation risk and at worst as an afterthought. Now, the very concrete effects on a real constituency were front and centre in the minds of Beehive staff, ministers, bureaucrats and the media – as well as opposition looking to drive a wedge in the government.

Key was elected only three years after Don Brash’s failed race-baiting campaign in 2005. Key himself campaigned on abolishing the Māori electorate seats. However, in order to court the Māori Party, that policy shifted to the position it maintains today, after the parliamentary departure of its support party and its dumping from government – that National believes in the abolition of the Māori seats, but only when it’s what Māori want.

This is perhaps a very roundabout way of getting to this point: smaller parties have been routinely punished after stints in government. But their impact isn’t always measurable by the number of bills they pass or even by the dollars they secure in funding.

It’s perhaps this instinct which has brought support back to the Greens and continued to grow Act’s vote in this week’s Colmar Brunton poll.

The latest 1 News/Colmar Brunton poll sees Act and the Greens up (Photo: TVNZ)

It’s become fashionable to discount the Greens’ achievements in government, particularly when measured in gross dollar terms against its swaggering senior counterpart, New Zealand First. Where James Shaw secured a $100 million Green Bank to lend for green energy projects with a solid business case at commercial interest rates, Winston Peters secured a $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund to hand out for free, essentially however Shane Jones liked.

But even if it smacks of the homeopathic theories that Greens like the very competent associate health minister Julie Ann Genter has fought to disassociate themselves from, it’s true that the influence of minor parties doesn’t necessarily show up in the hard numbers, but in a change in the energy of a government.

Similarly, no-one would pretend that National is unfamiliar with the notions of property rights and personal freedoms. But being part of a broad church party prevents MPs like Chris Bishop from being the same kind of animating force Act leader David Seymour has proved over the past three years.

Act isn’t just safe, with Seymour secure in Epsom, but flourishing. The Greens, without the safety of an electorate seat, may still hover on the margins of oblivion.

Progressive voters wanting continued action on climate change, environmental standards or inequality but frustrated by the Greens’ seeming lack of progress in this current government, may think back to the lessons from the Māori Party.

It still exists, of course, and is currently battling to re-enter parliament, with its best opportunity being through its very impressive co-leader Debbie Ngarewa Packer. But it’s a longshot, and the neglect of even the word “Māori” in the first leaders’ debate shows that in politics, out of sight can be out of mind.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.