The Maori Party had three related objectives for the 2008 campaign: to win all seven Maori electorates, gain greater recognition as the ‘Treaty partner’ in Parliament, and have a role in the next government. Thus the party sought to project itself as the independent kingmaker of the election, hoping to take up the same strategic position that New Zealand First had held as an important player in past coalition negotiations, able to leverage disproportionate policy gains from the major parties. In order to gain this position, the Maori Party had to carefully construct an image of political neutrality between Labour and National. These are the issues that I focus on in the section on the Maori Party within my chapter entitled ‘Party Strategy and the 2008 Election’ which is part of the recently published book Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 (edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig). This blog post is the 12th of a series of explorations of the chapters from the new book, and it constitutes the original draft section about the Maori Party that I wrote for my chapter. Subsequently this draft was substantially reworked, edited, and condensed for the final book, so please see the published book for the final and ‘authoritative’ version. [Read more below]
An independence strategy
As with the Green Party and its ‘Pepsi and Coke’ sloganeering, the Maori Party spent much of its campaigning year emphasizing to its potential supporters the inadequacies of what was seen as its default coalition partner, the Labour Party. According to Pita Sharples’ campaign manager Chris Tooley, the Maori Party had to counter the established anti-National line amongst Maori by ‘educating’ them that ‘Labour aren't as user-friendly as what Maori might perceive them to be… They took Treaty principles out of the education curriculum, they voted against the declaration on indigenous rights, the foreshore and seabed’ (quoted in Hume, Sunday Star Times, 12 October 2008). This strategy was not simply to convince Maori to vote for the Maori Party instead of Labour, but to establish a more independent stance amongst supporters so that the Maori Party could legitimately negotiate with either party to set up a government.
At the same time, however, the Maori Party had to be careful not to appear too close to, or soft on, National or else it risked making itself vulnerable to an argument from Labour campaigning in the Maori seats that ‘a vote for the Maori Party was a vote for National’ (as occurred in the 2005 election).
The strategy also required a parallel case to be made in favour of the National Party. Co-leader Tariana Turia had already pointed out the Maori-friendly aspects of the National Party numerous times, including her 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’.
To avoid alienating supporters – or at least to justify its independent positioning – the leadership also used the slogan: ‘We’re not left, we’re not right, we’re not middle – we’re kaupapa driven’. Such vague slogans were reminiscent of Act’s ‘Values, not politics’, United Future’s ‘Common sense’ banalities, and the Green Party’s various anti-politics election slogans.
Despite its ideological ambiguity, it became more apparent during the campaign that the Maori Party was actually a centrist party with leftish and rightish factions. Certainly the party's advocacy of work-for-the-dole - together with its immigration and law and order campaigns dismissed notions of the party as a leftwing force. Turia had even previously been a guest speaker at an Act party conference, where she 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’.
The shift towards the centrist political kingmaker position also required the party to shed elements of its image and manifesto that suggested it was too radical. This was part of an exercise to broaden the Maori Party’s political brand, which was judged to be crucial for eventually being able to reach the five per cent party vote threshold, which might be necessary at a time in the future when the Maori seats might no longer exist.
A Treaty partner party
Although the party’s ‘Treaty partner’ objective was ambiguous, it was a core part of its ideological raison d’être. The party saw itself as ‘not just another minor party’, but as a special one that represented a unique social constituency affording it an additional moral mandate as a coalition kingmaker. In the same way that the party – and many others – viewed the Maori seats in Parliament as being related to the special place of Maori in New Zealand, this related to a certain Maori worldview about having a special constitutional place in being the indigenous people, or tanagata whenua, of the country. This uniqueness gave the Maori Party a sense of confidence of a party of the future about to carry out its next steps in an historic evolution. Thus the party had a strong brand – not just in a visual sense of its red, black and white koru logo, but in terms of tino rangatiratanga, or self-determination, and the general language of emancipation. Essentially the party was seeking to cement itself as the Maori voice in Parliament – and this meant fulfilling the task of winning all seven Maori seats.
The Maori Party only contested the Maori electorates, leaving the general seats to the ‘pakeha parties’ – a decision sold as part of the ‘Treaty partner’ model. But the party also admitted that a lack of resources prevented the party from running in general seats, and that this might have deprived it of a broader electioneering platform (Trevett, NZH, 26 Oct 2008).
A low finance campaign
Although the party reported receiving a $70,000 donation from businesswoman Susan Cullen, the campaign was run on relatively meager finances, pushing it to run a more traditional campaign, with fewer signs of professionalization (O’Sullivan, NZH, 5 October 2008). The MPs stressed their role in face-to-face contact electioneering, door-knocking and other, and general old-fashioned campaigning. In order to get across the shoestring nature of the party’s budget, MP Hone Harawira even professed to be hitch-hiking around his northern electorate to deliver his message (O’Sullivan, NZH, 5 October 2008). Certainly the party had little capacity for billboards and pamphlets. Other innovative and low-cost techniques had to be employed. The use of both Maori Party and tino rangatiratanga flags was a common tactic. At one point in the campaign, MPs Tariana Turia and Te Ururoa Flavell joined candidate Derek Fox to campaign in his electorate, standing on a roundabout in Hastings ‘waving Maori Party and tino rangatiratanga flags as motorists tooted support’ (Tahana, NZH, Oct 15 2008). One party supporter told a journalist, ‘Other parties have big billboards out but we have not managed to get ours yet so the only way we can show support is through flags and stickers’ (McKenzie-McLean, The Press, 11 October). Other campaign innovations included the use of a 100m2 Maori Party banner towed behind a plane in the skies of Hamilton and Auckland.
The party’s campaign and policy launches had many similarities with the other parties, albeit being more relaxed and informal. A decision was made to launch the campaign at the Frankton Markets in Hamilton in order to boost the profile of its Angeline Greensill – the party’s candidate in that electorate. Likewise, the party’s economic and social policies were launched in Flaxmere – due to the area’s well-known status for a concentration of low socio-economic Maori inhabitants. This possibly backfired, however, with Turia making the apparently unscripted call for the abolition of the unemployment benefit.
Turia also made much of the party’s claimed 23,000 membership, saying ‘that's a big group to call on’ (quoted in NZ Herald, Oct 05, 2008). She also pointed out that the party does not ‘have a great big union movement working for us like Labour does’ and that although iwi might be expected to be an institutional source of support for the party and had benefited from Treaty of Waitangi settlements no donations had been received (NZ Herald, Oct 05, 2008).
Without a formal campaign committee in the Maori Party, management of the party’s campaign was overseen by the 30-odd people making up the party’s national executive, policy committee and caucus. The crucial personnel were party president Whatarangi Winiata, Hone Harawira, who was the party's campaign manager and in charge of fundraising, and Tariana Turia who was widely credited as the chief political strategist.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd