Bryce Edwards: Why the Maori Party failed

Bryce Edwards: Why the Maori Party failed

So it’s haere ra to the Maori Party. But some are also saying good riddance. Nowhere is the divide over the Maori Party’s exit from Parliament starker than on social media, where there’s been satisfaction as well as sorrow – see my blog post, Top tweets on the demise of the Maori Party.

Should we mourn or celebrate the ejection of the Maori Party from Parliament at the weekend? Perhaps the answer lies in understanding why the Maori Party has failed.

Did the Maori Party become too much a part of the elite?

Saturday’s result was, in many ways, simply the final nail in the coffin. The party hit its high point back in 2008 when it won five of the seven Maori seats. But since then it has been on a steep decline, going down to four MPs in 2011 (after the departure of Hone Harawira), then to just two MPs in 2014, and now none. So, its demise has been in train for quite a while.

Essentially the party’s continued alignment with the centre-right National Party has been a source of controversy for some time and is key in understanding the party’s problems.

Increasingly, commentators from across the political spectrum have identified the Maori Party’s long-term decline as being related to its conservative ideological and strategic approach. Regardless of the merits of the Maori Party attempting to position itself as an insider party, rather than automatically associated with the political left, it’s an approach that is out of sync with the vast majority of the Maori electorate.

John Moore argues today that essentially the Maori Party transformed itself into a vehicle for collaboration with political forces of the right and Establishment – see his blog post: The Maori Brexit – Why the Maori Party has been wiped from parliament.

According to Moore, “The Maori Party has been accused of being aligned with a growing Maori corporate class, as well as with the so called Maori iwi (tribal) elite. In contrast, Maori voters, who tend to lean leftwards economically and traditionally, gave their vote to Labour instead. It seems that many Maori have decided to ditch the Maori party once and for all. Most Maori are poor working people at best, or situated in New Zealand’s growing underclass. The fact that Labour has trumped the Maori Party in all the Maori electorates, suggests that class and material interests – or ‘bread and butter’ issues – have overridden cultural and indigenous concerns within the Maori electorates.”

Moore forecast the demise of the party earlier in the year, suggesting that the departure of Willie Jackson and John Tamihere to Labour extinguished any chance of the Maori Party being able to “present a more urban and working class image to the Maori electorate” – see: Game over for kaupapa Maori parties.

Likewise, yesterday’s Herald editorial discusses whether Maori need a separate political party, and points out that “while the Maori Party has functioned as a link between the Government and the Iwi Leaders’ Forum, it has steadily lost the confidence of Maori voters”- see: Can the Maori Party survive?

Criticism that the Maori Party was, primarily, the political voice of the Iwi Leader’s forum has been around for many years. Way back in 2010 Annette Sykes gave the Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture on The Politics of the Brown Table, in which she comprehensively examined the strategy that both iwi leaders and the Maori Party had adopted.

The idea that the Maori Party has become focused on “the things that don’t matter to Maori” has been pushed by the Labour Party as well as a number of political commentators. For example, recently Willie Jackson wrote: “Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox need to stop wasting time trying to get ASB to boycott Mike Hosking and spend more time on trying to get those banks to invest in our local communities” – this is highlighted by Morgan Godfery in his pre-election blog post, Please don’t tell Don Brash, but the Maori Party could decide the next government.

Morgan also points to the Maori Party’s failures on issues of housing and homelessness in Flavell’s own electorate, which the Labour candidate Tamati Coffey was able to expose.

Others have pointed (more sympathetically) to Flavell’s distance from the type of world that most Maori voters live in. For example, Graham Cameron blogs from the Waiariki electorate to say, “there is a small community of us in Tauranga Moana for whom that is our world, a world that is boundaried by te reo Maori, tikanga, kawa, whakapapa, raupatu, wananga, kura and kohanga reo. Most Maori in our electorate and round the country are clearly not immersed in that daily, so Te Ururoa must have seemed a bit distant and unrelatable” – see: Election reflections. NB potentially unpopular.

The role of the Labour Party in the Maori Party’s defeat

There should be no doubt that the Labour Party set out to destroy the Maori Party – not because it would get them more seats (and it didn’t) – but rather to deny National a potential coalition partner. And, it may have worked exactly as planned. After all, not only did Willie Jackson prove to be an important part of Labour’s campaign strategy, but it has to be remembered that he was set to stand in Tamaki Makaurau for the Maori Party. If that had happened then the Maori Party would possibly still be in Parliament. As I pointed out in February, the poaching of Jackson was a deft strategic move by Labour – see: Willie Jackson changes the game.

Generally, across all the electorates and across the country there was a big swing to Labour, but especially in Te Tai Tokerau, where Kelvin Davis easily staved off Hone Harawira’s attempt to re-take the seat. Being the deputy leader of Labour obviously helped Davis, but it also gave reassurance to Maori that they weren’t going to continue to be marginalised within the Labour Party which, in essence, is why the Maori Party gained traction in the first place.

In the short to medium term this will make it very hard for the Maori Party to come back in the Maori seats over Labour. Having comfortable wins in all the Maori seats, the deputy leader position and a substantial Maori presence in the caucus – including experienced operators like Jackson – will ensure that there is no repeat of the Foreshore and Seabed experience in the foreseeable future.

So, did the Maori Labour candidates kill the Maori Party? Tamati Coffey answered that question on Saturday night, saying: “It wasn’t me who killed the Maori Party – it was the voters” – see Mark Jennings’ article, Video key to Tamati Coffey’s win.

Can the Maori Party be revived?

The Maori Party is promising that it will be back. And attention is now turning to the future of the party, possibly under Marama Fox and the highly-regarded Lance O’Sullivan, who recently committed himself as a candidate for the party in 2020. Other possibilities to take over the co-leadership from Flavell include former broadcaster Shane Taurima and current Mana Party leader Hone Harawira – see Claire Trevett’s Maori Party starts on long road to try rebuilding by 2020 after being booted out of Parliament.

This article also reports that Tariana Turia is determined to come out of retirement to “save the party”. But many will question whether that might make things worse, given that she was largely responsible for the elite-oriented strategy that has failed so badly. The fact that she now has a knighthood bestowed on her by the National Government for her services will not impress many working class Maori voters.

Similarly, while Lance O’Sullivan would obviously be a popular pick to be co-leader of the party, his conservative views on the health system might reinforce to Maori voters that the party is too close to the establishment. For example, in talking about his political future, O’Sullivan said last week that he wanted to put a five-year freeze on health spending, even if that lead to job losses in the sector, as he said “I think we waste about $2-3 billion a year on inefficiencies” – see Newshub’s New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O’Sullivan wants ministerial role.

Do Maori want separate representation?

It would be very surprising if the Maori Party, or a version of it, does not contest the Maori seats at the next election. But such was the scale of the defeat this year, it may take a few election cycles to regain traction.

However, there must be a question mark hanging over how much a Maori-only party resonates with the target voter base. At the moment it seems Maori voters have given a very strong message that it doesn’t. Voters appear to be very happy with the fact that every party in Parliament has a strong Maori contingent of representatives. And the Maori Party’s argument that these MPs are somehow less attentive to Maori needs has not been borne out.

Others aren’t convinced however, that Maori MPs can deliver if they are in broader parties – see Shannon Haunui-Thompson’s What happens without a Maori voice?  and Kahu Kutia’s What is a government without the Maori or Mana parties?

Funnily enough, the Maori Party has, at times, taken a more pan-ethnic approach, despite what it argues about being a dedicated Maori party. It has had non-Maori run as candidates in elections before, and as Damon Salesa describes very well, the party underwent an interesting but not very successful collaboration during this election, fielding candidates from the One Pacific party – see: The Maori Party’s Pacific path.

Saturday’s result should also now trigger some introspection from the media and political commentariat, which largely failed to predict Flavell’s defeat in Waiariki.

Part of the problem was the Maori TV opinion polls published in the lead up to the election, which had some electorates right but some horribly wrong. The Maori TV/Reid Research poll showed that Flavell had the support of 60 per cent of Waiariki voters, against only 40 per cent for Coffey. Similarly, in Te Tai Hauauru, the Maori Party’s Howie Tamati was projected to win with 52 per cent support, against Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe on only 39 per cent.

So there are obviously issues to be resolved with polling the Maori seats. For example, the dependence on landlines is a real problem in the Maori seats because young and poor are much less likely to have landlines.

There was one person who got it completely right. John Armstrong wrote: “Will the Maori Party survive? Goodbye Te Ururoa Flavell. The Maori Party currently holds only one of the seven Maori electorates. A resurgent Labour Party is about to reduce that number to zero” – see: Betting on election outcome a fool’s game, but scenarios don’t look good for Bill English.

Finally, for a satirical look back at the Maori Party’s time in Parliament, see my blog post, Cartoons about the Maori Party, 2004-17.