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PoliticsSeptember 26, 2017

The sad fate of the Māori party shows the Greens what awaits pragmatists

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The annihilation of the Māori party shows the grim reality of MMP, and the rationality of the Greens’ refusal to engage with National under any circumstances, writes Duncan Greive.

Perhaps the most affecting scene of the election was watching Te Ururoa Flavell interviewed by Paddy Gower the morning after the election. Gower asked him what was going through his mind. Flavell blinked, stared hard then walked away from the cameras, overwhelmed. It was left for his co-leader Marama Fox to reply.

“I’ll tell you what goes through his mind,” Ms Fox said. “He’s given everything.” Later she described him as someone who has been “a soldier for our people his entire life”. Hours earlier he had announced his resignation as Māori party co-leader in the wake of his loss of the Waiariki electorate, which also signalled the end of the party’s 12 year run in parliament. While a resurgent Labour is undoubtedly a large part of the reason why, so too is the fact the party has spent three terms in government alongside National, with seats dwindling at every subsequent election. For all they’ve achieved, the prize is oblivion.

Pita Sharples and Te Ururoa Flavell in Parliament (Image: Hagen Hopkins/Getty)

The Greens, nursing their own wounds, will have watched this too. Since the election on Saturday most discussions of potential future governments have included the same swiftly-dismissed scenario toward the end. The arrangement is that of their cohabitating with National, and it generally gets around 20-30 seconds of airtime, before being moved along as an irrelevance – basically because the Greens have said it’s something they absolutely will not do.

Why they won’t do it, under any circumstances, is a window into what MMP allows parties to do in our name. And those who advocate for a National-Greens government need to consider the fate of the Māori Party, beaten out of parliament much less for what they did than whom they did it with. It starkly displays the gap between what a party might achieve in government and how the electorate will repay them.

It’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of the Māori party.

As Miriama Kamo wrote movingly on facebook yesterday, it was “born of a movement, an epic protest, that moved from the streets and into the halls of power. The leadership of Dame Tariana and Tā Pita, and then Te Ururoa and Marama, was the impressive shopfront for Māori aspiration.

“Those leaders knew that the fight wasn’t for themselves, but for Māori. They carried the legacy of the movement, that created the political waka, on their shoulders. For Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell, the loss of this election was not just ‘politics’, it was not just about the loss of a job. And we all knew it – that’s why there was so much compassion for them when the election turned up this result.”

The protest movement is now going to have to figure out how to live and work outside parliament. What it desired – to take the representation of Māori interests and put it in the hands of a Māori organisation – has been rejected in this election in favour of a revival of historic ties to Labour. And while a potential ticket of Lance O’Sullivan and Fox in 2020 holds a tantalising prospect of rejuvenation, the chances appear dim: only NZ First has ever made it back after ejection, and they had a uniquely iconoclastic politician of 30 years’ parliamentary experience on their side.

Yet even Winston Peters didn’t survive proximity to government unscathed, barely making it back with a split mess of a party after his first term in ‘99, thanks only to his electorate victory in Tauranga, and being ejected entirely in 2008. This reveals one of the brutal realities of the MMP system: while it is designed to allow the expression of diverse political views away from the duopoly of National and Labour, the electoral compensation for minor parties when they become part of government alongside those parties has almost always been political annihilation. Of the 11 parties which have entered parliament after an MMP election, six have been part of formal coalitions. Only the husk that is David Seymour’s ACT and NZ First remain in parliament today.

This is why it’s worth studying what happened to the Māori Party. During their time supporting first John Key and then Bill English’s governments they appeared to have an influence on policy far out of proportion to their relative size. Their list of achievements, of putting kaupapa Māori solutions like Whānau Ora into or alongside core legislation, is long. It’s likely no coincidence that government relations with iwi seem as cordial as they have in years, perhaps as good as they’ve ever been. This has been alongside a National party which had only a few years earlier given the Orewa speech and run the Iwi/Kiwi billboards – you could argue that it’s amongst the most remarkable accomplishments in recent political history.

All the more so because there was no need for the Māori Party to even be part of those governments. National were able to govern with the support of United Future or the ACT party throughout, and could easily have pursued the vast majority of its agenda with one or both supporting. Thus every concession the Māori Party were able to extract – and they ran into the billions – was one which would not have been gained had they simply sat in opposition and disagreed.

Their reward is becoming a cautionary tale for all others tempted to make peace with parties their base might mistrust.

It’s absolutely fair to say that the worst of what happened under National – the housing crisis, the burgeoning mental health crisis, stagnant wage growth, pick your poison – disproportionately impacted Māori. And yet however bad things are, surely no sensible observer would argue they’d have been better for Māori without the Māori party’s influence on National these past nine years. Thus it seems to become a kind of morality play – that it’s better to sacrifice what you can achieve in government for the unambiguity of opposition.

This brings us to the Greens. If it hasn’t already happened, there will soon be a phone call from someone in National’s camp to someone in theirs, so as to affirm what we already know: that there is no scenario under which they would entangle themselves with any National government.

This is why, despite their having just two fewer MPs, it was Winston on the cover of the Herald yesterday. It’s his driveway that David Fisher spent a day camped at the end of, not James Shaw’s. Newshub’s lead story last night was ‘Wooing Winston’, not ‘Wooing James’.

It’s also, paradoxically, why the most likely scenario is that the Greens will be the junior partner in any coalition with Labour and NZ First. Their refusal to engage with National is the source of their leverage – or the absence of it.

This stance generates periodic spasms of criticism, mostly from commentators who rue its tactical naivety, but occasionally from members who can live with National’s policy everywhere except the environment. I spoke to a number of TOP supporters in the course of reporting a feature recently who would sit in that camp – one of whom neatly articulated the reasoning in saying “the climate doesn’t have time”.

Yet such blue-greens are in a clear minority within the party. A far greater number have a visceral, tribal distrust of National based on past and present policy, philosophy and personality. And it’s this base which makes the Greens’ refusal to entertain the prospect of a relationship with National not just a moral stance, but a rational one too.

This is true despite the fact the Greens and National are currently as politically compatible as they have ever been. As much as National won the election, they fought it largely on a slate of of issues dictated by the left’s advocacy. English now openly talks about the blight of child poverty, setting goals for its reduction. The party has nominated a date for a predator free New Zealand and set goals for clean rivers. There is no discussion about removing the emissions trading scheme.

The Greens would be far more powerful at the negotiating table than the Māori party were, thanks to the number of MPs they would bring, and the absence of any other options for passing legislation. Thus it’s not at all implausible to imagine English agreeing to far more ambitious targets on both poverty and emissions reduction – the two core Greens planks in the recent campaign – in exchange for a fourth term. Certainly, each seems more coherently folded in to National’s legislative agenda than the grab-bag of ‘70s reissues that NZ First will be carrying.

Yet it won’t happen.

This is not, as Mike Hosking and others have suggested, because of a feral ideological loathing within its caucus – or at least not solely because of that. In reality, no one should bemoan Shaw’s unwillingness to entertain the prospect of working with National, even notwithstanding the screaming urgency of both their core issues.

Because we now know what would happen. Even an extraordinary deal – even one which saw radical and structural change on the issues they care most about – would spell the end of the Greens. Because they would be tied to every other decision made by National. And that would likely be enough.

Enough to consign them to the reality which faces Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox today. (The same one which Gareth Morgan awakes to too, incidentally). Which is that in our MMP history only one man and his one party have ever been granted the ability to pick and choose their partners, despite this being precisely what the system was designed to allow. The rest get burned by association, thanks in part to the way their pragmatism is framed by the major parties. It happens regardless of their achievements or the political reality they faced.

This is the case for the Māori Party now. Like most parties, they failed to run a mistake-free campaign: Morgan Godfery cited the interference of the Kīngitanga in Hauraki-Waikato, while a homophobic press release can’t have helped. They faced a clever and ruthless campaign by Willie Jackson and Labour, too. But it seems hard to argue that they didn’t suffer by what should have been their greatest strength: a willingness to fight for their people and supporters no matter who is in power.

Unfortunately for them, and contra those commentators who bemoan parties’ inflexibility, it’s really the party bases and their internal democracies that decide what is and is not acceptable. They use a complex and unknowable matrix of factors to influence their decisions. Still, elimination seems a very high price for the Māori party to pay.

“They want to go back to the age of colonisation, where the paternalistic parties of red and blue tell Māori how to live,” Fox said on The Hui of those who voted Labour. Flavell was clearly heartbroken in the aftermath of his defeat: “I don’t want to hear people talk about tino rangatiratanga, I don’t want to hear people talk about mana motuhake,” he said, “because we had it in our hands and it’s gone.”

Emma Espiner captured what their absence will mean for her in a lament for the party’s passing for Newsroom. “What are we left with,” she asked, “what does this mean for Māori aspiration and representation?”

She praised the incoming Labour Māori caucus, but wrote “you wake up the morning after the election and who are your champions? Where are Metiria Turei, Te Ururoa Flavell, Hone Harawira, and worst of all – Marama Fox”.

She concluded that you have to be at the table”, much as the Māori party had for the past nine years. Voters appear to have disagreed. The payback for pragmatism, no matter how well-grounded it is in theory, appears to be guilt by association.

That’s what ultimately imprisons the Greens, those idealists of extraordinary endurance. They’re 27 years old, never out of parliament in one form or another, yet still awaiting their first cabinet position.

As much as having proximity to power without ever quite holding it frustrates some (and must privately frustrate the hell out of them), this infinite patience is what has kept them out of the destructive chaos of government. The Greens are thus far more committed to their own survival than what might be gained through power. To some that renders the party pointless and sanctimonious; to others the only party of true conviction in parliament. At the very least it shows they practise the sustainability they preach.

So if NZ First does defy predictions and go with Labour, the likelihood is that they will be squeezed to some kind of periphery of confidence and supply or abstaining again. Which would be an unfortunate situation – but they appear to have made a calculus with which it is hard to argue: that it is better to take what you can get than end up in the broken state in which the Māori party finds itself today.

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