Image: Andrew Dalton/ TVNZ
Image: Andrew Dalton/ TVNZ

PoliticsSeptember 27, 2023

Kaupapa Māori debate: Reflections from the political hāngī pit

Image: Andrew Dalton/ TVNZ
Image: Andrew Dalton/ TVNZ

Political candidates from across the political spectrum assembled to debate the issues on the front of Māori voters’ minds last night. The Spinoff’s Tommy de Silva and Charlotte Muru-Lanning reflect on the hour of kōrero.

The studio lights were beaming, the blazers were on and the conversation piping hot at the TVNZ Kaupapa Māori debate last night, hosted by deputy political editor Maiki Sherman. 

Willie Jackson of Labour, Tama Potaka of National, ACT’s Karen Chhour, Marama Davidson from the Greens, Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere and Shane Jones from NZ First took to the debating bench to discuss the issues looming most heavily among Māori voters: cost of living, housing, climate change, education, health, co-governance and justice. 

Charlotte Muru-Lanning: Some worrying knowledge gaps

It’s often said (among Māori at least), that it’s especially rough to be Māori in an election year. Our most basic legal rights become a source of fear-mongering, our identities and culture knocked around to score political points, inequities across the board for Māori, which have been proven ad nauseum, are once again, disputed – essentially, we become a brown (of many shades) political football. 

So as the six Māori candidates took their places along the debating bench last night, I was particularly keen to see how some – especially those in NZ First, ACT, National and Labour – justified standing behind party policies which have received hearty criticism across te ao Māori in the lead up to the election. And I’m happy to report, there were revealing moments, as well as some better described as perplexing. 

At this Māori-centred debate, unsurprisingly, one of the elephants in the room was NZ First leader Winston Peters’ recent comments that Māori are not indigenous, and it was the first question put to Northland candidate Shane Jones by moderator Maiki Sherman. “Ah yes, the ‘I’ word,” Jones said flamboyantly before continuing on the first of many lyrical yet vague tangents of the night – each answer managing to dance around the actual issue. While Jones was jovial, entertaining and full of zingers, it was hard to gauge how much of what he said, especially that which was disparaging of Māori, he actually believed. Perhaps that in itself is revealing.  

Image: Andrew Dalton/ TVNZ

Recently selected National candidate Tama Potaka swung back against questions on whether or not National’s policies addressed living inequities for Māori with one liners like, “max-kāwanatanga” or “we’re really focused on delivering needs” or “it’s more than the carrots, beans, broccoli and brussels sprouts that Hipkins is offering”. Contrasted with the immediate needs being referred to – much of this seemed to fall flat among the audience. “Jeez those Pākehā really got to you, boy,” Labour MP Willie Jackson said at one point.

Of the bunch, Jackson was most frank about the compromises that come with being Māori in a major political party. When asked in a quickfire round about whether he believed te reo Māori should be compulsory in schools, he acknowledged the gap between his personal beliefs (that it should be compulsory) and the stance of his party (that it should not be). Later, when asked by Sherman whether the punitive ram raid policies brought in by Labour this year meant they had sold their “soul to look tough on crime”, he described the party’s ram raid policy as “one of the toughest things we ever did”. Te Pāti Māori’s John Tamihere replied bluntly, “they got spooked by the polls, and spooked by the incessant demonisation of our people by politics of the right”.

Most jarring though, was the absence of basic knowledge on kaupapa Māori issues from ACT’s Karen Chhour. Early on in the debate, Chhour noted her childhood growing up in state care – which had left her disconnected from te ao Māori. Knowing this, it was hard not to feel mamae for her as she stumbled through the most rudimentary of Māori topics. On whether ACT would commit to maintaining Te Matatini funding she responded timidly in the affirmative before asking, “that’s the culture group festival?” When asked whether Māori had ceded sovereignty, she replied “I don’t know enough,” which was met with sighs from the audience.

More than anything else, it’s haunting to think that there might be such a dearth of cultural competency when it comes to te ao Māori from within the party that no one even considered that it might be a good idea to brush up on these issues ahead of time. Both Chhour and her party tend to counter that their policies – which include ending co-governance and a referendum on Te Tiriti – are anti-Māori with the retort that Māori are not a political monolith, that Māori have diversity of opinions and that therefore, their policies can also be based in a Māori worldview. And that of course, can all be true, but this display of naivety made it hard not to wonder whether, for the most part, these egregious policies are simply based in ignorance.

Image: TVNZ/ Andrew Dalton

Tommy de Silva: A clear winner

During TVNZ’s Kaupapa Māori election debate, experienced candidates were victorious over the novices. ACT and National’s rookie representatives Karen Chhour and Tama Potaka lost to their adept adversaries – although it is hard to choose one definitive winner from the veterans: Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, NZ First’s Shane Jones and Labour’s Māori caucus ringleader Willie Jackson. Yet if I had to pick one winner, I’d choose Davidson, but more on her later.

It’s a shame the rookies weren’t better since the veterans were ultimately predictable. Eloquent as ever, Jones simply regurgitated what Winston Peters had already said. Jackson managed to bring up his baby MUMA or his Labour colleagues whenever possible. Employing mākutu, Tamihere bewitched his opponents into mentioning his brainchild Waipareira for him. Davidson often harkened back to “tiriti justice” while scolding Chhour and Potaka. 

Potaka’s journey through the debate was similar to his leaders’ over the course of the campaign.  Both started out reciting lines that sounded a little too practised – the Hamilton West MP’s robotic early lines “big kāwanatanga” and “stop wasting money” were poorly received by the crowd. (As CML noted above, Potaka referred to “max kāwanatanga” as well, highlighting the potentially pre-prepared nature of his remarks). But over time, like Luxon, Potaka loosened up, becoming more charismatic, comfortable and likeable. While discussing rental properties, Potaka finally got the crowd on his side when he joked that Jackson’s tenants in Rotorua “don’t have any hot water”. 

But his status as a political novice was evident as Potaka struggled to read the room. Many of his points weren’t well received by the crowd and likely didn’t win National many Māori votes. One particularly out-of-touch moment came when moderator Maiki Sherman told Potaka that putting the median Māori income ($45,000) into National’s tax cut calculator delivered a fortnightly saving of $8.31. When she asked what you could buy for $4.15 a week, Potaka answered, “a couple of protein bars and lots of rice” – cue plenty of audience groans. 

Image: Andrew Dalton/ TVNZ

Should National have sent one of their two Māori seat candidates to the debate instead? Sitting MP Harete Hipango (contesting Te Tai Hauāuru) and newcomer Hinurewa Te Hau (running in Tāmaki Makaurau) may have been better options. As proved by her comments during National’s bilingual street sign debacle in May, Hipango speaks her mind, even if it goes against the party line. Te Hau tells heartfelt, personal and touching stories about National’s relationship with tāngata whenua. These approaches would have better suited this debate than Potaka’s PR-approved one-liners. 

A televised opportunity to connect with Māori voters would also have been more meaningful for Hipango or Te Hau. After all, it was a kaupapa Māori debate where discussions were irrelevant to most Hamilton West voters but extremely pertinent to Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauāuru constituents. National’s performance last night has stuck with me for all the wrong reasons, being a missed opportunity to promote their first two Māori seat candidates in over 20 years. 

Potaka was often outshone during the debate by his neighbour, Marama Davidson. Whereas Potaka struggled to build crowd rapport, Davidson’s connection was instantaneous. The Greens co-leader looked like the veteran she is, and even though she didn’t speak as much as others, her kōrero was straightforward and highly impactful. During a co-governance debate, it took her one short sentence to explain the policy better than Jackson’s Labour could in over a year of trying. “Co-governance is mahi tahi“, she explained simply. 

Another notable moment was when Sherman questioned Davidson about the slow progress on climate policy since 2017. She rebutted that Labour and the Greens have done “more in five years than the last three decades.” Throughout the evening, Davidson seemed to receive more nods and murmurs of support than all the other candidates combined. Her warm audience reception was on full display during the debate’s closing moments, when Sherman asked the participants for their favourite waiata. 

While some chose English songs that the audience didn’t seem to know, Davidson sang a waiata, which a decent contingent of the crowd joined in on. Last night was not Davidson’s first impressive debate performance, as she impressed The Spinoff’s editor-at-large Toby Manhire during last week’s multi-party debate. Manhire wrote, “Davidson was the most impressive of the bunch, alternating mischief with impassioned moments.”  Such comments could aptly be applied to describe her performance during TVNZ’s kaupapa Māori debate as well. 

Keep going!