The Maori Party and the Mana Party’s decision to put aside their differences and enter into a pact will lead once again to a new order in Maori politics. Labour’s fragile hold on six of the seven Maori seats is now seriously in doubt. In this guest blog post, John Moore argues that all the Maori seats are up for grabs, due to the fluid and dynamic nature of the Maori electorate. Yet this dynamism within the Maori electorates is more-often-than-not under-analysed by political commentators who over-emphasise the “traditional” aspects that are seen as shaping the indigenous political world in New Zealand. [Read more below]
It’s very common for the “politics of tangata whenua” to be mistakenly defined by political commentators as “conservative”. This failure to define the constantly changing nature of the Maori electorate largely comes from an outdated and limited view of Maori politics as being contained within a culture framework than emphasises tradition, history, deference and whakapapa or genealogy. In reality, Maori, more than any other electoral demographic, are actually prepared to throw out poor performing political leaders, and turn their noses up in a act of irreverence to authority. For this reason, a combination of ongoing Maori dissatisfaction with their political leaders, and the current anti-Establishment mood could lead to another radical realignment in the Maori political world.
Outmoded perceptions of Maori politics
Received wisdom in regards to indigenous politics in New Zealand has failed to explain the dynamic and turbulent nature of the Maori electorates. Political commentator Morgan Godfery has presented the most articulate argument for the “conservative” thesis in regards to the Maori political world – one that implies that the radical realignments that have occurred over recent decades in the Maori electorates are more of an aberration rather than a reflection of any state of crisis and flux with tangata whenua politics.
Morgan’s argument boils down to a view that a “traditional” Maori world view, in combination with “traditional” Maori tribal and social structures, acts to place a restraint on Maori politics. For Morgan, “history, whakapapa and memory” are seen as playing a determining role in shaping the conservative and largely static nature of Maori politics. So despite there being a new realignment between the two kaupapa Maori parties, Morgan’s conservative thesis leads him to seeing no big shakeup or realignment on the horizon.
The dynamic nature of Maori politics
In reality, the dynamic and volatile nature of Maori politics means that sudden and very sharp realignments and shakeups are far more likely in the Maori seats than in the general electorates. Yet many of the most knowledgeable and astute commentators on Maori politics continue to fail to both explain and to predict the continuous radical realignments that have been occurring in the Maori electorates over the last few decades.
Take the clean sweep of the Maori seats by New Zealand First in 1996. This revolution in the Maori electorates took many political commentators and complacent Maori politicians by complete surprise. Attempts at explaining this rejection by Maori of their political leaders was often superficial, impressionistic and self-serving. Defeated Southern Maori MP Tini "Whetu" Marama Tirikatene-Sullivan explained her and the other Labour MPs inglorious defeat as simply being due to the messianic rise of Maori MP Winston Peters. Others, patronisingly saw the Maori electorate as slavishly following the advice of tribal leaders who were seen as switching allegiance from Labour to New Zealand First. And, once Labour had taken back the bulk of the Maori electoral seats, the radical upturn in the Maori electorates was put down as an episodic deviation.
In a similar fashion, commentators have seen the decline of both the Maori Party and Mana’s support as reflective of a conservative Maori electorate returning to their political home – the Labour Party. According to Morgan Godfery, Labour commands an ongoing allegiance from Maori due to the historical relationship between the party and Maori communities and because of Labour’s deep understanding of “how history, whakapapa and memory shape Maori politics”. The Maori electorate’s break with Labour in 1996 with New Zealand First, and then again in 2005 and 2008 with the ascent of the Maori Party and subsequently Mana, is seen as merely a political transgression.
The Conservative-thesis in regards to Maori politics is slowly being challenged by some Maori commentators who are coming to grips with the highly volatile nature of the Maori electorate. Maori consultant, director and journalist Chris Wikaira is one of a handful of Maori commentators who see that the Maori political world is now in a state of flux:
The Maori voters are very volatile, and we’ve seen that since MMP first came in. You know, Maori were the first to really split their vote, with that New-Zealand-First-Labour split that I mentioned before. Then when the Maori Party came in, overwhelmingly, the party vote was still for Labour, and that was keeping one foot in the conservative past and what was known and what was considered to be a bit safe. It’s up for grabs. It’s really up for grabs. National has been making some inroads into the party vote since MMP started, where it used to get absolutely no support whatsoever, so it is dynamic, and it is changing.
Maori as the vanguard of anti-Establishment politics
Anti-Establishment politics is the zeitgeist right now, but in terms of the Maori political world a rejection of political elites and an awareness of the power of the ballot to upturn politics-as-normal, goes back a couple of decades. No one political party now monopolises Maori allegiance in the Maori seats, and the Maori electorate has shown itself to be amongst the most self-conscious in terms of awareness of its ability to send certain messages to political parties who aim to win their favour.
Despite Labour’s apparent strong understanding of “how history, whakapapa and memory shape Maori politics”, the party clearly no longer exercises exclusive authority within the Maori electorates. These seats sent a clear message to Labour back in 1996 that Maori voters was not to be taken for granted. In the 1996 election New Zealand First captured all the Maori seats. Docile Maori MPs who had failed to show any resistance to the anti-working class policies of the 4th Labour government were swept from power. And in their place stood a new breed of self-assured and independently minded Maori politicians.
Since Labour's loss of its monopoly on the Maori electorates, Maori voters have shown a flexibility and fluidity with party support – shifting partially back to Labour in the 1999 election, but again punishing the party in 2005 for its perceived anti-Maori position on the Foreshore and Seabed legislation under the Helen Clark government. This time round it was the newly formed Maori Party that was used by the Maori electorate to indicate further dissatisfaction with Labour, and to show a readiness to not defer to Maori political leaders who weren’t seen as delivering the goods for Maori.
The ascent of the Maori Party – which won four of the Maori seats in the 2005 election and gained an additional seat in the 2008 election – showed that the conservative thesis in regards to the Maori political world was deeply flawed. Rather than being conservative and deferential to traditional leadership, 21st century Maori voters in these seats have proven to be the most radical in terms of being prepared to discard poorly performing politicians and to punish political parties who aren’t seen as acting in a consistent pro-Maori fashion.
The lack of reverence for a self-appointed Maori political class by Maori voters, and the willingness to reject once-favoured political parties outright, reflects the fluid and radical nature of Maori politics. Of course this goes against orthodox views on Maori politics – where Maori voters in the Maori seats are seen as deferential and conservative. But the willingness of Maori voters to switch party allegiance to sweep aside what goes for a political Maori class, indicates that anti-Establishment politics is now a core component of the dynamics within the Maori electorates.
Another big shake-up in the Maori seats
The volatile and fluid nature of the Maori electorate means there can be no assumptions in terms of which party will gain the allegiance of voters in each Maori electorate. Predictions based on past voting patterns, or in regards to the perceived dominant role of “history, whakapapa and memory”, are inadequate and will likely lead to wrong conclusions. Just as political commentators have failed to grasp the shifting political mood in the American presidential election as well as with the Brexit vote, commentators who analyse the Maori political world based on old assumptions inevitably fail to see the dynamism and fluidity that characterises the Maori electorates.
Another big shakeup in the Maori seats could well be on the horizon. A Maori Party and Mana electoral block that is able to present itself as an independent voice for Maori could well capture the mood of dissatisfaction and political alienation from Maori voters. And both parties are looking to put up strong candidates that could well blindside the Labour Maori MPs. That’s certainly the mood coming from various Maori media commentators including Semi Holland of Maori TV:
It’s understood Tainui leader Rahui Papa will consider contesting the Hauraki-Waikato candidacy, sources say other leaders have also been approached by the party to put their names forward to contest the party’s candidacies including Ngāi Tahu leader Mark Solomon for Te Tai Tonga, Shane Taurima for Tāmaki Makaurau, Ngarimu Blair for Tāmaki Makaurau, Moana Maniapoto for Tāmaki Makaurau and Willie Jackson for Tāmaki Makaurau. Rapa, Solomon and Blair are the effective heads of the major Iwi in each area. They would all have very good chances of winning the seats off Labour.
If the kaupapa Maori block can present itself in a way that captures the anti-Establishment mood within the Maori political world, and put forward candidates that are seen as representing a strong independent voice – one not beholden to either Labour or National - then Labour’s partial regain of the Maori voters’ allegiance in 2014 might prove to be very short-lived. Prepare for another shake-up and radical upturn in the Maori electorates!