The Māori Party – what went wrong?

Dec 19, 2017

He Whakaaro
Nā Ward Kamo

A lasting image from the 2017 general election was Te Ururoa Flavell’s open tears and heartbreak at losing Waiariki, knowing that loss spelt the end of the Māori Party. It was a shock for many, with genuine sorrow expressed across the political spectrum.

It sparked harsh criticism of Māori voters by the Māori Party leaders. “They want to go back to the age of colonisation where the paternalistic parties of red and blue tell Māori how to live,” said Marama Fox. Flavell stated: “I don’t want to hear people talk about tino rangatiratanga, I don’t want to hear people talk about mana motuhake, because we had it in our hands and it’s gone.”

There was also bewilderment for many party stalwarts over what they had done so wrong to lose the Māori vote. After all, under their watch, the Foreshore and Seabed Act was repealed, over 50 Treaty settlements had been concluded, a king’s ransom had been paid into the flagship initiative Whānau Ora, the first real lift in welfare benefits for 40 years occurred, and they stiff-armed National into signing the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. For a party that never held the balance of power, and that National never needed to form a majority government, this was by all measures a successful nine years for the Māori Party.

Of course, however, the Māori Party had a confidence and supply agreement with the National Party. Māori unemployment rose to over 13 per cent. House prices skyrocketed, with Māori home ownership rates far lower than pretty much all other groups. Māori homelessness is said to have risen (although definitive figures are hard to source). The prison population remained stubbornly at 50% Māori. Māori obesity rose substantially, and Māori suicide rates remained proportionately higher.

With this in mind, it could be argued that the Māori Party simply could not get its message across – that it couldn’t get “cut-through”, as the political pundits like to say. That message, others say, was lost in the relationship between the Māori Party and the National Party. The received wisdom is that the Māori Party was in National’s back pocket, and that Māori voters were increasingly unhappy with the arrangement. Well – maybe.

In the scramble to explain the loss, no one talks about Hone Harawira’s fateful decision to walk away from the Māori Party to form the Mana Party in February 2011. More than any other factor, the loss of Māori Party internal discipline led to its eventual demise. The departure of Harawira arrested the upward momentum that should have seen the Māori Party pick up Ikaroa-Rāwhiti and Hauraki-Waikato in 2011 (and given it the all-important balance of power). It saw the start of a split in the Māori vote that gave Labour the chance to ride through the middle and take over the Māori seats once again. That was demonstrated with the loss of Te Tai Tonga in 2011, and then Te Tai Hauaūru and Tāmaki Makaurau in 2014 (with Hone Harawira losing Te Tai Tokerau as well). By 2017 it was just a mop-up operation for Labour.

We can’t know for a fact whether the relationship with National was the cause, as it was never tested by a united Māori Party at the 2011 general election. We can know for a fact that the splitting of the vote into Māori versus Mana was absolutely critical.

So what can we draw from it all, assuming the Māori Party voice is lost for good?

Well – holding your nerve is one lesson. If Hone Harawira had held his nose just 12 months longer and kept discipline, the Māori Party may have won all seven seats – still not enough to hold the balance of power, but enough to consolidate those seats as firmly Māori Party. This may have continued into 2014 – still not enough to hold the balance of power but able to exert real political power. And with the rise of Labour this election, a Māori Party with seven seats would have held the balance of power. That would meant real negotiations to advance a Māori agenda.

Equally however, the discomfort with National cannot be ignored. This is a historical disquiet that stems from the Rātana decision to back Labour due to its welfare platform in the 1930s. Prior to this, the Māori seats were held by conservatives under the Liberal/United and then the National Party. The urbanisation of Māoridom in the 1950s saw our people flood into the cities and take up labouring jobs. Labour’s strong union focus enabled real worker concessions to be gained, and to ensure our people worked with some of the rights we now take for granted (40-hour working weeks, paid holidays and sick leave, safer working conditions, etc.).

Given the stranglehold Labour had over the Māori seats it’s not surprising that National never really prioritised its relationship with Māori. That’s not to diminish its extraordinary achievements with the volume of treaty settlements it achieved. It’s the one thing National can truly own in regards to iwi development.

The Māori Party never really did anything “wrong”. It gained measurable and impacting concessions during its time working with National. It couldn’t solve all the ills facing Māoridom, and nor will the Labour Party be able to do that either in its allotted time.

What they didn’t do well was “politics”. Politics is a contact sport. It’s rough and brutal and certainly not for the fainthearted. It requires discipline and the swallowing of more than one dead rat to survive.

Ideology is how you win elections. Compromise and discipline are how you run a successful government. The Māori Party spent just three years on the ideological sideline and nine years compromising to get policy gains. In 2005 Labour refused to deal with them, saying they were “the last cab off the rank”. There were no gains to be had through that relationship. The Māori Party, through Labour’s refusal to deal with them, were left with National in 2008. What was the alternative? It may have been that nine years of no gains would have been good for the Māori Party. It certainly wouldn’t have done a thing for Māori. It wouldn’t have hastened the arrival of a Labour-led government. But hey seven seats – that would have been an achievement.

Ward Kamo (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mutunga Chatham Island, and Scottish decent) grew up in Poranui (Birdlings Flat) and South Brighton, Christchurch.