Leftists and liberals are deluded if they think that the latest judgment of the Waitangi Tribunal is a victory or that the Maori Council and other Maori aristocrats have suddenly become political allies. What the left fails to understand is that the corporate – or wannabe corporate – leaders who make up the Maori Council aren’t so concerned with privatisation moves, but instead are merely better positioning themselves to gain a cut of the state asset pie. The fight over water and state assets has become transformed into a muddy battle in which the left has lost its way, and could end up contributing to greater inequality and the further development of corporate Maori/iwi control of what is currently state property. That’s what guest blogger John Moore argues in this analysis of the ongoing ‘water wars’. He says that the left (and liberals) fail to deal with the big question: ‘Whose water?’
The Maori Council versus The Iwi Leaders Group
The left are rightly cynical about the rightwing Iwi Leaders Group (ILG). The ILG are currently the Government’s preferred Maori organisation to negotiate with over a range of issues. And it has become clear that the ILG leaders have a strong interest in promoting asset sales and private public partnerships (PPPs). Basically, rich iwi (which the ILG represent) are only really concerned about getting the most favourable treatment when the Government allows private individuals and corporations to move into the public economic sphere. So if the ILG are a lost cause for the left, is the Maori Council now the new vanguard against both the government and the Maori establishment? Hardly.
Yet the left in New Zealand seems to be going gaga over the intervention of the Maori Council into the current ‘water wars’. The fact is that the Maori Council, like the ILG, represents an elite section of Maori. The only real difference between the two organisations is that the Maori Council is led by individuals who feel that they, and the particular iwi elite they represent, haven’t received their fair share from Treaty settlement packages. Essentially then, the Council's current moves are an attempt to reposition themselves as the vanguard of the campaign for a further transfer of ownership and control of assets and resources to more minor iwi. Even amongst Maori commentators, the organisation's moves are viewed with suspicion. Maori legal expert and blogger Joshua Hitchcock recently made the following comments on the Maori Council's motivations behind their Waitangi Tribunal claim:
The Maori Council is a body desperately searching for relevance amidst the rise of independent Maori political bodies and the more representative Iwi Leaders Group. It no longer speaks with the authority of Te Ao Maori behind it, instead it appears to have been captured by the specific interests of Titewhai Harawira and Donna Hall. It speaks volumes about the strength of their case that the Iwi Leaders Group, a body comprised of the elected leaders of Iwi throughout Aotearoa, refused to support the claim and instead preferred to continue negotiation with the Crown around water rights.
Anti-privatisation campaigners need to get real and realise that the Maori Council is not irreconcilable opposed to state asset sales. The reality is that leaders of the Council have raised this issue of ‘who controls water’ as a way to bolster their own profile and to elevate themselves as important spokespeople for Maori. Their move to stifle the Government's plans for the partial sale of power generating state companies is therefore all about furthering the interests of a Maori elite who wish to gain some control over water and other resources. The Maori Council’s claim to the Waitangi Tribunal therefore has really nothing to do with a leftwing argument for 'public' ownership and the management of resources and assets for social good rather than for private profit. This was made clear with a statement by Council deputy chair Richard Orzecki who explicitly stated that the Council was calling for a temporary halt to the sale of SOEs only while the question of iwi control of water is still being dealt with:
The planned sale of power companies raises issues of ownership and management of fresh water and other natural resources, which are still under discussion between iwi and the Crown. We recommend to the government that the water issue be dealt with first before the Sale of State Owned Enterprises.
So why is the left acting as cheerleaders for the current crop of Maori aristocrats who make up the Maori Council? Basically, this sycophantic behaviour comes from the liberal-left always blindly looking for some sort of mainstream Maori leadership to emerge that they can celebrate and ally with. They don't look at Maoridom through a class lens (which is, of course, very unfashionable), and so they always presume that most Maori politicians and groups are somehow progressive.
The left and the Maori Council
Maori and non-Maori leftists who are genuinely concerned about a corporate take-over of various State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are sadly mistaken if they believe the Maori Council are some newfound ally. Rather than entirely halting the partial privatisation process, a victory for the Council’s claim would simply lead to a strengthening of the case for private ownership, albeit public-private joint control, of major state resources and assets in New Zealand. Yet much of the left seems hesitant to critique the Maori Council’s pro-iwi claim, despite the fact that corporate iwi are hungry to snap up any state asset on offer. So why is the left deluding itself in supporting a section of the Maori Establishment, in this case the Maori Council, whose agenda is clearly all about strengthening the case for corporate Maori control of state assets?
A left lost in a ‘post-class’ wilderness
The left in New Zealand lost its way a long time ago, and now it is simply incapable of analysing Maori politics from a class perspective. So for example, leftists just can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that a section of Maoridom now has an inherent interest in the promotion of rightwing policies. A consequence of this non-class centred perspective is that corporate/pro-capitalist statements coming from the likes of the Maori party, the Iwi Leaders Group, and yes even the Maori Council, are all presented as anomalies or aberrations.
Why anomalies? Because the left generally sees all Maori as an oppressed group that is instinctively progressive, anti-corporate and anti-capitalist. But such a viewpoint is just plain wrong. Since the transfer of millions of dollars of assets to Maori tribal organisations over the last few decades, a Maori corporate class has emerged with its own distinct interests and politics. Yet the left prefers to see this Maori elite as ‘selling out’ (as opposed to the reality of them simply following their logical class interests). And so this same left is now desperately looking for a new Maori leadership to emerge from the Maori aristocracy. So along comes the rather dull and conservative Maori Council, allied with a range of iwi and hapu who don’t feel they’ve got their fair share of treaty settlement goodies. And without a moments though, the left presumes the protests being made by the Council leaders must be progressive. Lets look at some examples of how leftists and liberals have hailed the Maori Council’s recent actions.
Leftwing Maori leader Hone Harawira, has called for keeping state assets in ‘people’s hands’. But at the same time he has also supported the Maori Council’s water claim. Bizarrely he seems to be arguing that ‘all New Zealanders’ who oppose privatisation moves should support the use of The Treaty to push for ‘Maori interest in water’. Therefore, he is effectively arguing that transferring more wealth and resources to corporate iwi will somehow act to protect state assets. This certainly makes for a rather contorted logic.
Unite Union leader Matt McCarten seems to go along with Harawira’s illogic and has favourably presented the Mana Party leader’s viewpoint in his Herald column. On Harawira’s support for the Maori Council McCarten has said: ‘Mana leader Hone Harawira saw the political gap, quickly stating many Pakeha who opposed the sales must now realise that the Treaty of Waitangi and the Waitangi Tribunal were the only chance of keeping our power companies in public hands’.
Even Chris Trotter, who can write excellent critiques of Maori nationalist politics, strangely seems to be cheering on the Maori Council’s efforts as being somehow progressive. He even goes so far as to call for the ILG to get in behind the Council and the Waitangi Tribunal:
The choice now confronting the Iwi Leaders Group is, therefore, a profound one. Either, it will facilitate the National Government’s partial asset sales programme by negotiating some form of tribally-based compensation, or, it will throw its weight behind the Waitangi Tribunal and the Maori Council. The latter course would align them in a politically significant way with the needs and aspirations of non-elite Maori: the beleaguered whanau and hapu who constitute the primary victims of National’s neoliberal policies.
Despite this loving feeling directed by much of the left towards the Maori Council, the fact is that the Maori Council isn’t the left’s friend.
Why the Maori Council isn’t the left’s friend
The Maori Establishment is currently divided over how it should relate to government privatisation moves. Rich and powerful Maori, and the iwi they represent, tend to support government policy in terms of welfare reform and state asset sales. This section of the Maori elite represents those Maori who have gained the most benefits from the Treaty settlement process. Another section of the Maori Establishment, which includes the Maori Council and its allies amongst disaffected iwi and hapu, can be seen as essentially jockeying for a greater share of future compensation packages. However, neither section of this Maori aristocracy is opposed to privatisation of state assets, and both sides support neo-tribal iwi capitalist formations. And being capitalist structures, iwi corporations act, of course, like any other ruthless corporation. In fact, as pointed out in a recent Marxist article, Maori Council president Sir Graham Latimer played a key role in the structural transformation of many iwi into capitalist organisations. For example, Latimer was instrumental in transferring 37% of New Zealand’s fishing industry to corporate iwi. And it is these same iwi owned businesses that have been benefiting from the super exploitation of foreign workers on cheap Asian ships. Te Ohu Kai Moana Trustee – which is a key Maori fishing organization – CEO Peter Douglas even grotesquely defended such actions to the New Zealand press:
Iwi are being forced to use ageing low-wage foreign charter vessels (FCV) to fish their quotas because their allowable catch is not big enough to justify buying their own boats, according to the head of the key Maori fishing organisation.
Yet despite such venal actions of iwi corporations, the left cannot seem to equate ‘Maori capitalism’ with ‘pakeha capitalism’. Again, the left is failing to look at Maoridom through a class lens, and so many New Zealand lefties end up saying silly things about Maori capitalism. For example, liberal-leftie blogger Martyn 'Bomber' Bradbury has now argued that Maori capitalism might actually provide the answers to New Zealand’s woes:
The new recession will demand new answers and new powers stepping up to be redefined…I think one of those unique answers could be Maori Capitalism. If the most important thing really is people, people, people then the Iwi Leaders must take that challenge on board and redefine Maori Capitalism so that it isn't the exact same venal capitalism that we know and hate.
Just because one section of the corporate (or wannabe corporate) Maori elite feel hard done by in terms of Waitangi Treaty settlements should be of no concern to those generally concerned about inequality in New Zealand. If the Maori Council, and its iwi partners, continue to be successful in their claims against the state, then this could well lead to a successful case being made for a partial transfer of the control of water and other resources from the state to private [Maori] corporations. That these corporations happen to be owned by Maori shouldn’t make any difference in the left’s opposition to such a transfer of state resources and wealth to the rich. The rich, brown or white, are no friend of the left.