Politics

The end of ‘neither left nor right, but Māori’

Morgan Godfery looks back at the four term history of the parliamentary Māori party, 2005-2017.

Te Ururoa Flavell, the former Minister for Māori Development, school principal, charity boxer and “Iron Māori”, is out of Parliament after twelve years representing Waiariki, a four-term run that saw him expand Whānau Ora – his party’s signature achievement – reform gambling laws, improve access to housing grants, and hand iwi and urban Māori the power to set the government’s direction on te reo Māori. “A gentle man who cries at happy news,” Flavell is vowing to stand down from his party’s co-leadership after a devastating election night where party supporters, pale and mute, watched Labour’s Tamati Coffey take Waiariki with a more than 1000-vote majority.

“New Zealand has spoken,” party co-leader Marama Fox told The Hui on Sunday morning, her voice cracking as people shuffled past her in an airport departure lounge. “They want to go back to the age of colonisation where the paternalistic parties of red and blue tell Māori how to live.” For Fox and her supporters, Sunday morning must’ve felt like a darker, colder world than the one in 2008 where Māori voters returned five Māori Party MPs, including Flavell and the party’s co-founders Dame Tariana Turia and Sir Pita Sharples. It was a brutal comedown for the party Turia promised would be “neither left nor right, but Māori.”

In the end, that was the problem. Transcending the left-right divide simply meant making their peace with power. Instead of tearing down the coloniser’s table the Māori Party sought a seat at it. Treachery, some people said, and in 2009 – only a year after inking a supply and confidence deal with National – the party came under heavy fire for “selling out” and supporting the government’s amendments to the emissions trading scheme (ETS). The amendments saw the government subsidise or exempt the country’s biggest polluters meaning “higher petrol and power prices as households [were] forced to share the cost of pollution.”

Some members were furious. Hone Harawira, the caucus radical, withheld his support, even as five iwi were set to secure planting rights to thousands of hectares of conservation land under a deal Turia and Sharples secured. How could Harawira support something that might drive up the cost of living for whānau? Sure, iwi might profit from the carbon credits they could accumulate, but any profit would come at the expense of working Māori who were helping subsidise big polluters. Rather than transcending the left-right divide Harawira went left while Turia, Sharples, Flavell and Rahui Katene, the then MP for Te Tai Tonga, went right.

They couldn’t escape the divide between labour and capital, even if they were Māori.   

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

Everyone seemed to understand this: Harawira, party members like Annette Sykes, and even conservatives like then-Labour MP Shane Jones who condemned Turia and Sharples for “selling out” working class Māori in favour of a “privileged elite.” The only people who seemed to miss the significance of the split over the ETS were Turia, Sharples, Flavell and Katene who would insist it’s better to be at the table than not, even if it means compromising on some occasions. What’s good for iwi is good for whānau, right? And anyway, the wins will come.

In one sense, they were right. The wins did come. From Whānau Ora, the welfare programme putting families in charge of the government services they receive, to Māra Kai, the programme planting communal gardens in Marae across the country. In this year’s budget the Māori Party secured $122 million in new spending. “The Māori Party keeps its promise to whanau,” boasted the official press release. But what the talking points left unsaid is $122 million represents less than 0.1 percent of core Crown spending in the year to June 2018.

Is 0.1 percent enough to keep you at the table?

Not Hone Harawira, the hard-talking northerner who abandoned the party – well, was pushed – after publishing an extraordinary column in The Sunday Star Times in 2011 criticising his colleagues for their shift right. “[Our] public positions on some issues have changed a lot since we were in opposition,” he wrote. “In 2005-2008 we voted 30 percent with National and 70 percent against, but in 2008-2010 we voted 60 percent with National and 40 percent against.” Translation: we’re siding with the bad guys. “National” is still a curse word in Māori communities with the party struggling to top ten percent of the party vote in the Māori electorates.

At first, the split seemed as if it were a divide between left and right. Radicals and conservatives. But it was more than that: the split happened over the very nature of kaupapa Māori politics itself. Is it rights-based or emancipatory? For the Māori Party, the idea is to secure Māori rights within the existing system. Treaty rights and the like. Hence the singular focus on sitting “at the table,” the place where decisions are made. But for Harawira and his Mana Movement the point was to contest the system. Rights were things that could only exist in another, different system (whether Māori, socialist or some kind of cross).

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

The conflict would take its toll with Harawira retaining his northern seat under the Mana Movement and Katene losing her seat to Labour’s Rino Tirikatene, even as Labour’s share of the party vote across the Māori electorates sunk from 50 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2011. Two seats down the party MPs took the message and got to work over the 2011-2014 term. Turia took Whānau Ora off Te Puni Kōkiri, the hapless Ministry for Māori Development, handing community collectives’ power over how to support whānau while party members voted on the “succession question,” electing Flavell male co-leader in 2013.

After almost a decade in Parliament the party MPs were no longer the hellraisers they once were. Turia, who’d crossed the floor to vote against Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act, Sharples, with his straggly mullet, and Flavell, often seen with a guitar in hand, were paid-up members of the establishment, even going as far as wining and dining donors at the notorious Northern Club (the home of Auckland’s capitalist class) in 2014. Ten or twenty years earlier Turia, Sharples and Flavell may have set up a picket line demanding the club return its land to  Ngāti Whātua, but the party had long since made its peace with power.

Some people find this hard to reconcile, but it was always the point. The party MPs were never elected to tear down the house from the inside. They were elected as Members of Parliament with one end in mind: repealing and replacing the hated Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. The courts were never an option here – the Supreme Court cannot overturn legislation – and direct action only went so far, culminating and dissipating after the 20,000-strong hikoi in 2004. The Māori Party was the last, best option.

Maori Party co-leaders Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox in July 2017 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Perhaps this is where politics becomes unfair. Repealing the Foreshore and Seabed Act and replacing it with the Takutai Moana Act 2011 is the party’s crowning achievement, a strategic triumph. Under the Takutai Moana Act no one can own the foreshore and seabed, the only position consistent with tikanga (under Māori law you cannot “own” land, only exercise rights and responsibilities in respect of it). This felt like progress. But it was also the moment the party’s rationale for “sitting at the table” exhausted itself. What was there left to fight for, other than 0.1 percent of core Crown spending?

I should concede that this is re-writing history, if only a little. For all its conceptual merits, the Takutai Moana Bill still came under heavy fire. Of the 72 submissions at select committee stage from iwi, hapū and other Māori organisations only one submission supported the Bill’s passage without significant amendments. A good deal of submissions condemned the Bill as not that different from the Act it sought to replace. Again, Hone Harawira criticised his colleagues. The party leaders extolled the virtues of sitting at the table.       

In one sense, they were right. It’s better to sit at the table than not. But that’s defending their position with a negative. “Imagine how worse off you might be”. This is never going to make a convincing pitch, especially when your opponents are promising to empower you rather than simply protect you. When Labour’s Māori MPs and candidates talk about 100,000 new homes, three years of free tertiary education and a health system that’s there when you need it, people hear an empowering message. When Māori Party MPs and candidates talk about sitting at the table “making gains for our people” those very same people are positioned as the passive beneficiaries of our technocratic overlords.

The tragedy is the party MPs always felt more comfortable siding with the establishment, both the political establishment and the Māori establishment. After Native Affairs screened serious allegations of financial mismanagement and impropriety at a subsidiary of the Kōhanga Reo National Trust Board in 2013, Turia condemned the media “attack” on the kōhanga board and questioned whether Māori Television “had forgotten its original purpose,” as if its original purpose were to never criticise Māori, no matter how powerful or how urgent the questions.  

In the end, the Māori Party could never command a majority of support in Māori communities, losing two seats in 2011, another two in 2014 (the only consolation was picking up list MP and media sensation Marama Fox) and the final two in 2017.  The Māori Party MPs always “regarded themselves as representatives not just of a party,” wrote former party candidate Kaapua Smith in 2006, “but also of a wider social and cultural movement.” This is the movement they would eventually lose touch with, sitting at the table while the rest of us starved.

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