The Maori parties have been delivered a sucker punch with Labour’s successful courting of Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, who are now both firmly within the party’s embrace. With Jackson being promised a high list pacing, and with John Tamihere likely to be given a prominent campaigning position by Labour, the Maori Party and the remnants of the Mana Party have lost their big chance to present a more urban and working class image to the Maori electorate.
Labour is now almost certain to win all but one of the Maori seats, with the Maori Party looking like they will only retain Te Ururoa Flavell’s Waiariki electorate. And Hone Harawira will now be a non-goer for recapturing the Te Tai Tokerau seat, as Jackson and Tamihere will now be rooting for Labour MP Kelvin Davis to retain the seat. Therefore, the game is essentially over for both the Maori Party and Mana, as their last ditched attempt to present themselves as a strong independent voice has been thwarted by Labour’s Machiavellian move.
The Maori Party’s pro-Establishment image problem
The Maori Party perception as a vehicle for iwi elites has seriously dented its appeal to voters in the Maori electorates. The party’s partnership with the National Party, and its focus on post-material cultural concerns over economic-material policy, has led to the Maori Party’s alienation of much of its earlier electoral support. The party’s lack of focus on tackling Maori poverty, as well as the growing levels of inequality within Maoridom itself – has led to a perception of the Maori Party as a political vehicle for rich Maori as opposed to the majority of poor and working class Maori.
Hone Harawira was able to initially capitalize on the growing levels of discontent with the Maori Party, which initially acted to propel the Mana movement as the legitimate voice for disenfranchised poor and working class Maori. However, due to opportunism on the part of the Mana leadership with forming an alliance with billionaire renegade Kim Dotcom, the efforts of Mana to present itself as a voice for the poor was ended.
With Mana effectively no longer acting as a serious competitor to the Maori Party, leaders Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell now had the chance to re-establish an image of the party as the legitimate independent voice for Maori. Harawira’s electoral pact with the party ended Mana’s previous class-based challenge to the Maori Party. And Willie Jackson’s joining of forces with the party presented a game changer and a serious threat to Labour’s tentative hold on six of the seven Maori seats.
With Jackson and Tamihere on board, the Maori party was now in a position to reassert its image as a party of Maori as a whole, rather than the current perception of it as a party for the Maori elite. Both of the two urban Maori leaders have significant influence and power within the Auckland Maori communities, and are seen as champions of urban Maori rights. Jackson and Tamihere’s decision to support and campaign for the Maori Party was a game-changer which was likely to draw new support for the party from urban Maori - who had become alienated from the party due to its support for the right-leaning National-led government and because of the party’s close ties with the Maori iwi Establishment. Although Labour had regained six of the seven Maori seats, its hold on the Maori electorates was tentative a best with the Maori electorates being the most volatile and dynamic electorates in the country. For an analysis of the dynamism of the Maori electorates see my earlier blog post.
With Jackson and Tamihere's support, the Maori Party had a real chance of recapturing the Maori vote through connecting with the anti-Establishment zeitgeist. However, without the two Maori urban leaders, the party, along with hanger-on Hone Harawira, is a goner. Labour can now more effectively present itself as the voice of disenfranchised urban Maori than can either the Maori Party or Harawira.
The failure of the kaupapa Maori political project
The establishment of the Maori Party, and its subsequent success, led many to conclude that we were now in an era where Maori overwhelmingly supported the need for an independent Maori political vehicle with a well-defined Maori philosophy. The Maori Party itself even went as far as declaring the Maori Party as the permanent treaty partner in a relationship with the kawanatanga (government).
The Maori Party represented a new and unique political phenomenon. The formation of the Maori Party in 2004, and the subsequent election of four Maori Party MPs to parliament in 2005, represented a watershed in indigenous politics in New Zealand. The Maori Party’s electoral victory was historic in terms of representing the first time an indigenous-based political party in New Zealand had independently gained electoral seats.
The Maori Party emerged at a time of heightened protest activity over the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. Labour MP Tariana Turia broke from the labour movement, and presented the need for an independent Maori political voice. She argued for a Maori party with a firm Maori philosophy or world view, that was neither “left or right”, but “Maori” in its outlook and composition. (Tariana Turia, 2013).
The party was seen as presenting a platform for kaupapa Maori politics, an ideology that privileges a Maori world view. However, the party’s focus as a vehicle for a kaupapa Maori ideology ignored the contested understandings of what is a Maori world view, as well as the heterogeneous nature of Maoridom itself.
Tariana Turia, who still commands a significant influence over the party, tended to ignore the deep divisions that mark out Maoridom, and equated elite Maori concerns as the concerns of Maori as a whole. This orientation towards the Maori Establishment acted to cause deep divisions within the party, which eventually led to the split by Hone Harawira and the formation of the left-leaning and working class oriented Mana Party.
It’s about class, stupid
The project of forming a single independent political voice for Maori has failed. The early leaders of the Maori Party view of Maori as essentially a homogenous group with a common outlook and with united concerns, proved to be misguided. The increasing relevance of class divisions within Maoridom – between iwi elites on the one hand, and poor and working class Maori on the other – proved to be a divide the Maori Party has failed to understand and capitalise on.
Willie Jackson and John Tamihere gave the Maori Party a chance to redefine itself as a voice for disenfranchised urban Maori, and a chance to capture some of the “missing million” non-voters. But with the party’s loss of the two urban Maori leaders, it will be Labour and not the Maori Party-Mana alliance that will be able to present itself as the vehicle for disenfranchised Maori against the tribal elites.