Bryce Edwards: Labour risks losing the Māori vote

Bryce Edwards: Labour risks losing the Māori vote

Labour chose a pākehā over a Māori as president at its annual conference in the weekend. Some believe this could have ramifications for a sector of the party and a demographic feeling ill-served by the party and the Government. Commentators have argued that this is symptomatic of bigger problems in the Labour-Māori relationship, which could endanger the coalition’s survival.

Tane Phillips, the party’s Māori vice president, as well as the union leader of Kawerau’s pulp and paper workers, lost to Claire Szabo at the weekend in the contest for Labour Party president. Phillips had the strong support of the party’s Māori caucus as well as Labour’s Māori Council – Te Kaunihera Māori – who fought hard for Phillips.

The fallout from the decision is still occurring. Today, leftwing commentator Chris Trotter argues that it illustrates how much the party has changed, especially in rejecting a proven Māori working class union organiser. He says the party no longer properly represents the working class and Māori very well – see: “Not the Labour Party we once knew”.

Here’s his main point: “It was people like Phillips who reclaimed every last one of the Māori seats for Labour in 2017. Their highly effective campaign (which drove the Māori Party from Parliament) spoke not to the Māori middle-class, but to the strong working-class communities in which most urban Māori still live. That sort of success would have been enough to get the Secretary of the Pulp & Paper Workers Union elected president in the old Labour Party – but not Jacinda’s new one.”

Similarly, writing before the conference vote, Morgan Godfery implored the party to vote for Phillips over Szabo, pointing out that Labour had only ever had one Māori president (Charles Bennett in 1972) and had an obligation to always have a Māori president running the party organisation whenever the parliamentary leader was Pākehā, as is the case at the moment – see: Only one parliamentary party lacks a Māori leader. Here’s how they fix it.

Godfery argued that Labour has traditionally been backward in supporting individual Māori into positions of power, and this “shame” continues. Every other party in Parliament has a Māori leader, he says, and “If Labour MPs are serious about the Treaty and its promise of power-sharing” then they would elect Phillips.

Choosing Szabo, “whose background and views seem close to the dominant Ardernism” in the party, would be more of the same. In contrast, “Phillips comes from nearly all of the groups traditionally locked out of power: he’s Tūhoe; he’s provincial; he’s an industrial worker who went from the shop floor to representing his colleagues as their union secretary; and he’s from Kawerau, one of the most deprived communities in the country.”

Former Labour Party chief of staff, Matt McCarten also strongly supported Phillips for the presidency, writing a scathing column in which he argued that the party’s relationship with Māori isn’t healthy, but instead treats Māori as “the sidekick bought out for ceremonial occasions to create the illusion of equality, when it isn’t” – see: Time for real leadership for Māori in Labour?.

Reporting on a meeting of Māori within Labour, McCarten says that the new party president is viewed as simply a clone of Jacinda Ardern, and therefore threatens diversity in the party. Phillips, in contrast, apparently “played a key role in Labour’s successful campaign to win all seven Māori seats back after 12 long years”. He was also the previous chairperson of the Waiariki Labour electorate organisation, and “was the only person in the leadership who believed that Labour could take out Te Uruoa Flavell therefore removing National’s only viable partner and pathway to government.”

McCarten reports that the Māori faction that recently met had “expressed their frustration with the lack of progress on Ihumātao, and what they described as the invisibility of true representation in the party’s upper echelons.” Furthermore: “The current term has not been an easy one for the party’s Māori caucus. Their MPs have faced pressure from their constituents over the Government’s handling of Ihumātao, and the uplifts of Māori children by Oranga Tamariki. There is increasing concern about whether their voices are being heard by the wider caucus.”

Much of this sentiment is also conveyed by Henry Cooke and Collette Devlin who report that there appears to be growing discontent in this area, and this could impact on the survival of the coalition next year – see: Labour has a lot to clear up at its annual conference this weekend.

The lack of Māori representation and policy wins in the Government is key concern: “Despite delivering 13 MPs – including a clean sweep of the Māori seats – there are only two Māori MPs from Labour in Cabinet. One of them may be the deputy leader, but it’s an open secret within Wellington that Grant Robertson pulls the strings a lot more than Kelvin Davis does. The Māori caucus feel the heat from Māori themselves, particularly in the electorates. Ihumātao remains unsolved. Targeted Māori funding is rare.”

According to this article, this lack of progress could enable the election of a National-led government next year: “Both Waiariki and Tāmaki Makaurau are seen as being in play next year, with the Māori Party desperate to make a comeback. If the comeback is successful then winning the election by making sure National has no friends to go into coalition with becomes a whole lot harder.”

This rise of the Māori Party as a consequence of the Labour Party’s conference is also discussed by Audrey Young – see: Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is less forgiving and patient (paywalled). She says, “getting rid of the Māori Party from Parliament [in 2017] was significant in denying National a potential ally. If Māori in Labour are seen to be frustrated exercising real power in Government, that will be fuel to the fire of any revival by the Māori Party.”

According to Young, there will be ramifications from Phillips losing the race to be the party president: “that won’t be the end of it. It will exacerbate a growing frustration of Māori within the party of unmet expectations. He represents an increasing demand in Labour for manifestations of partnership, be it in Budget wins, and positions within the party organisation, the caucus, list positions, winnable seats and the cabinet. The promotion by Ardern and Labour of the concept of ‘partnership’ and an enhanced Treaty relationship without really defining it is promoting aspirations that neither she nor the wider party are willing to meet. Holding up Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis as the deputy Labour leader doesn’t quite cut it. The deputy’s role is largely carried out by Ardern’s closest confidante, Grant Robertson.”

Writing earlier, Young also points to the looming difficulties for the Government, saying the parties are “facing a series of very difficult Māori issues that could affect their electoral success if Jacinda Ardern does not handle it well. Most of the issues include demands for greater control by Māori of state agencies or natural assets. They run the gamut from the push for separate management of Māori babies at risk and Māori prisoners within the state system, to questions of ownership of water, flora and fauna and what the answers might mean for their management, as well as the Ihumātao occupation” – see: Managing Māori issues a test for Jacinda Ardern’s Government (paywalled).

So how well is the Government actually dealing with issues affecting Māori? Not at all well according to Morgan Godfery who wrote in the Guardian last month that, On every issue important to Māori this government is failing.

Godfery says “the gaps between Māori and non-Māori remain more or less the same as under the last government”, and “change seems as distant as it ever was. On almost every major issue important to Māori this government is stalling. Even in reverse.” He therefore laments that in 2017 he campaigned against the then National-aligned Māori Party.

Writing in April, journalist Carmen Parahi evaluated how well the Government had performed in terms of its election promises for Māori – see: Labour’s Māori ministers have achieved little for their people – so far.

In October, Prue Kapua, the president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League told her conference that the “government has failed to deliver transformative change for Māori” as they “had made little progress in reducing inequities for Māori women and whānau in the justice, health, education, and state care system” – see Te Aniwa Hurihanganui’s report, Māori Women’s Welfare League says government failing Māori.

Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta is reported as explaining that Labour had inherited a mess from National, and “this change can’t happen overnight and that’s the sad reality”.

But according to Māori political commentator, and former Labour candidate, Shane Te Pou, Mahuta hasn’t performed well in government: “the most senior Māori MP in terms of service, Nanaia Mahuta, seems missing in action. I haven’t seen any real activity out of her major portfolios, Māori Development and Local Government. I was on the selection panel for Labour that nominated Nanaia and my frank assessment is she has made a career out of being barely visible” – see: Labour won back all the Māori seats – but has it delivered?.

Te Pou is complimentary about some in Labour’s Māori caucus. For example, Willie Jackson “really calls the shots” and is “Māori Labour’s go to person”; Kelvin Davis is “doing God’s work on major and transformational justice sector reform”.

But generally, he says, “there remains a lot of unrealised potential. The real challenge for them is to use the leverage they have to bring about meaningful change. If they come to be seen as a useless appendage – or a rubber stamp – they could go the same way as the Māori Party.”

Finally, what political issues are of key concern to Māori? This year, according to a survey by the NZ Māori Council, the most anxiety-inducing concerns relate to: Oranga Tamariki, housing, mental health, policing, and the cost of living and employment – see: The state of Māori Affairs – the things that kept Māori awake at night in 2019. For comparison, you can also see how this differs from the previous year: The things that kept Māori awake at night in 2018.