Ethnic-based politics continues to reveal itself as a dead-end for the liberation of Maori in New Zealand. In the article below, republished from the Spark newspaper, I argue that although the Maori Party is not yet three years old, it's already proved itself to be a conservative and centrist political force with little to do with progressive and working class politics. [Read more below]
The problem is the broad range of opinion and voters that the party must represent. It has consciously decided to be a party for all of Maori, rather than those that are poor or struggling. It has therefore decided not to be a leftwing party of the working class. Co-leader Pita Shaples has clearly stated that ‘Our philosophies cater to the rich, the poor, to everyone’. He has been positive about the business backing the party has received, saying ‘There’s been fantastic support’. Others involved in establishing the party have certainly included a number of Establishment-types – such as Graham Latimer and Donna Hall.
There has, of course, also been a number of leftwing and radical Maori involved or supporting its establishment, but many have been doing so alongside their own shift to right. Ex-Alliance MP, Willie Jackson, for example says, ‘I don’t even know if I’m a lefty anymore… obviously I was part of the left. Now I see myself as pro-Maori’.
The Maori Party has made culture and ethnicity the foundation of its politics. This is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of contemporary New Zealand. Co-leader Tariana Turia has argued that Maori and pakeha ‘live very independent and separate lives. There isn’t much interaction’. Yet the reality is that Maori and other ‘races’ are overwhelming intermixed, and continue to intermix. Government statistics show that about half of Maori who are living in a relationship, are living with non-Maori. So despite what both conservatives and radicals might want to think, New Zealand isn’t made up of ‘two separate nations’.
This separatist view of society has meant that Turia and other party colleagues have expressed the demand for a dual Parliament with a separate house for Maori. It is not a coincidence that such separatism has found support from the National Front, which has also adopted this demand, and say they are even fine with Maori establishing their own separate territory or nation somewhere in New Zealand.
The choice of the name ‘Maori Party’ is odd, since Turia regards the word ‘Maori’ as a colonial invention with derogatory connotations. In 2003 she announced that the word should be rejected in favour of the term tangata whenua. According to Turia, Maori had been relegated to being just another ethnic minority by the use of the term Maori.
Far from being ‘dangerous radicals’, as some in the media and politics were initially inclined to describe Turia and colleagues, they have proved extremely conservative and amenable to incorporation in the elite. Turia has been a guest speaker at an Act party conference. She has even described the Maori Party views on welfare as being similar to Act’s. She has also said that her political aims are to stop allowing the state to take over their lives, and that ‘This so-called welfare state has not done us any favours’.
Likewise the party has been exploring closer relationship with both Labour and National, with the idea that the party will be the ‘kingmaker’ at the next election, and able to go into coalition with either party. Turia justifies a possible coalition with National with the statement that ‘if you look at the history of the National Party, because of their free-market, private-enterprise philosophy, they have actually allowed Maori people to participate and take back some control…. Kohanga reo, kura kaupapa, wananga, Maori health providers and Maori social service providers were Maori initiatives, but all came out under National governments.’
Interestingly, it’s been much of the political right that have been more accurate than the left in seeing the party as a conservative force. Early on, both Jim Bolger and Richard Prebble said the party would be politically ‘conservative’ and that the right could work with it. Even the chairman of the Business Roundtable has boasted about working with the party to find areas of common ground.
On becoming a co-leader, Pita Sharples clearly stated that his new party ‘will have the same basic philosophy’ as Labour. But on many issues, the party has proved to be even further to the right of the Labour Party. Conservative parts of the programme, have included voting against the Civil Union Bill to give greater rights to same-sex couples, voting to raise the drinking age, expressing support for private prisons (to be run by Maori entrepreneurs who are ‘culturally sensitive’), and now to introduce work-for-the-dole.
Attempting to incorporate a broad range of class support means that the party leadership has a hard job coming up with policies that appeal across the board. One strategy is to adopt a nationalism that can appeal to Maori across the spectrum. Hence Turia has railed against immigration and foreign investment. She has recently said that there are too many whites coming to New Zealand, and absurdly, that successive governments had used immigration against Maori to stop the ‘browning of New Zealand’.
To avoid alienating voters – or at least to justify their populism – the leadership repeats the mantra: ‘We’re not left, we’re not right, we’re not middle – we’re kaupapa driven”. Such vague slogans are reminiscent of Act’s ‘Values, not politics’ and United Future’s ‘Common sense’ banalities.
It has become extremely clear that, despite some initial ambiguity, the Maori Party is far from being any sort of anti-Establishment force. And just as many working class Maori switched to vote for NZ First in 1996 then regretted it, the new adventure with the Maori Party is proving to be another false start and a dead-end for ordinary Maori wanting to see progressive radical change.