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Rawiri Taonui: The Maori Election

The Maori Election

R. Taonui

In 2005, Dame Tariana Turia and Sir Pita Sharples galvanised the Maori vote behind the independent voice of the Maori Party. The Maori electorates voted for Maori Party candidates and gave their party vote to Labour. Division unravelled unity in 2014 with the Maori Party and offshoot Mana Movement splitting their vote to allow Labour to take six of the seven Maori seats.

The Mana Movement – Maori Party Accord

The election battle for the Maori seats 2017 opened last year when Maori Party President Tuku Morgan announced a peace deal with the Mana Movement aimed at securing all the Maori seats and holding the balance of power.

Perception is everything in politics and the accord, which included dividing the Maori seats and agreeing to disagree on policy without the bro-battles of yore, let itself down on several fronts.

The pact looks lopsided with Mana running in one electorate Hone Harawira (Te Tai Tokerau) and the Maori Party the other six.

Morgan failed to deliver on publicly touted high profile candidates Sir Mark Solomon and Willie Jackson who abjured as did TVNZ presenter Scotty Morrison. Worst still, Jackson immediately declared for Labour.

Kingi Tuheitia’s theatrical declaration against Labour translated into the public arena as a gang-up with Morgan and tribal heavyweight Rahui Papa on faithful Tainui servant and longest serving Maori electorate MP and Nanaia Mahuta.

And, in what new Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis described as “all steam and no hangi”, a second agreement with One Pacific over-estimated the Pasifika potential to vote Maori Party and underestimated the failure of Mauri Pacific to achieve same in election 1999.

With Harawira seeking redemption from the acrimony of 2014 and the ill-judged alliance with antithetical internet king Kim Dotcom, ructions with Maori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell over the latter’s Te Ture Whenua Amendment Bill hinted at a continuing enmity. Coupled with an execute drug dealers press release Harawira looked a warrior of old.

By Easter, the new accord had done little to remind voters of the importance of the independent Maori political voice. All indications pointed to Labour dominating the Maori seats.

Labour Implodes

The pendulum of political fortune often favours the untogether when opposed by the self-befuddled and so it was that toward the middle of the year the momentum had swung back to the Mana - Maori Party accord as Labour threw fire rocks everywhere except into the September umu.

Former Labour Leader Andrew Little’s accusation that the Maori Party is not ‘kaupapa Maori’ sparked widespread indignation reigniting the collective Maori anamnesis that anyone who had worked for independent Maori political parties from the 1850s Kingitanga, 1890s Kotahitanga, 1970s Mana Motuhake and 1990s Maori Congress was and is by definition kaupapa Maori.

And, after what should have been a monumental coup, Labour’s National Council cut Little’s feet out from under him by shoving Jackson lower on the party list than the leader had promised.

Reflecting unresolved gender, working vs middle class and Pakeha vs Maori tensions within Labour, the distorted internal campaign that unfolded against Jackson was one that would only have been mounted against a brown man.

The worst was an assassination by association memo condemning Jackson for comments clearly made by John Tamihere during the infamous Roastbusters interview.

The same memo also accused Jackson of being a cowardly homophobe because he once wrote that he was “a little uncomfortable with gay men”. The statement was in fact the lead in a powerful Jackson penned column supporting gay rights and the reaction the complete opposite of the liberal response lauding former New Plymouth major now bicultural hero Andrew Judd for confessing ‘once was racist’ now pro-tangata whenua.

The March announcement to exclude the Maori electorate MPs from the party list to go head-to-head with Mana and the Maori Party rang hollow. Labour’s Maori candidates rarely ranked well anyway.

In election 2014, Maori MPs delivered nine of the 11 seats in which the party vote favoured Labour. Just one, Mahuta, was listed in the top 10. Four listed 12 to 19 were an irrelevance, Labour’s five list MPs being drawn from the top 11 and of course all Pakeha.

The March top 20 included 12 Pakeha, nine women and six Pasifika, Indian and Asian candidates. Admirably diverse? Yes. The cost, sacrificing Maori, none in the top 15, just two in the top 20, Jackson a low 21. Projecting polls from the first half of the year none would enter Parliament via the list.

By mid-year, Labour looked intent on handing the Maori seats back to Mana and the Maori Party.

New Zealand First

New Zealand First also assisted the Mana – Maori accord. When the conjurer of dark imaginings, leader Winston Peters, announced policy for a referendum on the Maori seats his main achievement was reminding Maori voters that it was the Maori Party that had defeated the previous attempt at a referendum.

Peters also erred in claiming that voters were leaving the Maori roll in droves; fully 54% of Maori voters remain on the roll, during the periodic Maori electoral option many more choose to switch from the general to the Maori roll and three times as many new Maori voters opt for the Maori over the general roll.

Peters also claimed the seats were redundant with MMP having now delivered more than enough Maori into Parliament. While Maori numbers in parliament have risen since MMP was introduced in 1996, it is the rise of the Maori Party that has lifted the recruitment and prominence of Maori MPs across Parliament - Hekia Parata in National, Marama Davidson in the Greens and others.

The Maori seats are important. The number of Maori in Parliament is not the issue, no one seeks a referendum on the disproportionate number of male Pakeha MPs, the question is whether they are good representative servants of our communities.

Many Maori unfairly criticised Paula Bennett as a plastic Maori when she proudly accepted the deputy leadership of National as a “Maori woman”. Whakapapa is the basis of identity, no identity is more authentic than another and no one is the judge of another’s identity. We can however distinguish between MPs of Maori descent unfamiliar with the culture and without robust links to Maori communities, and, Maori MPs organically connected with iwi, marae and Maori organisations. The Maori seats are the main conduit of representation for the latter. There are exceptions and the gap is closing but for the foreseeable future the seats should remain.

New Zealand First’s Shane Jones ‘nuke them’ attack on Northland gang ‘Fight Nights’ echoed his leader’s pursuit of the mainstream vote while doubling as a much needed booster for Harawira whose response reinforced his qualities as a flax roots advocate of the disenfranchised. Like Jones, Harawira opposes gang drug and crime culture but supports the fights as defusing conflict for the sake of Maori whanau and tamariki.

The Davis Effect

On July 31, the Mana – Maori Party accord looked odds on to hold Waiariki, retake Te Tai Tokerau and Te Tai Hauauru and strongly challenge for Tamaki Makaurau and Hauraki-Waikato.

And what a difference a day makes. On August 1, Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis were appointed as the new leader and deputy leader of Labour. Although untested in the crucible of electioneering the Ardern – Davis duet is a charismatic combination of the sometimes contrary mix of modern woman and man’s man. They look good, sound good, appeal to women, many men and the young. They are new generation Pierre Trudeau.

Assisted by the prejudicial persecution of Metiria Turei they have climbed to 33.1% in the Newshub-Reid and 37% in the One News – Colmar Brunton polls and will hit 44% on election night and pip National if Adern out-performs Prime Minister Bill English in televised debates.

They have also sent a message that Labour may yet fulfil the promises of Ratana. Within two days, Ardern and Davis had re-shuffled their bench, including astute promotions for under pressure previously invisible Adrian Rurawhe in the Treaty Negotiations portfolio and Mahuta re-elevated as associate spokesperson Maori Development.

Historically, Labour has overlooked the talents of its Maori MPs, particularly Jones who was the standout debater in the 2013 leadership contest. Davis is therefore important. There are Maori leaders across the political spectrum. And, while Bennett and Peters have served as Deputy Prime Minister, Davis is the first Maori deputy leader for Labour and the closest a Maori electorate MP has come to the highest offices since former Eastern Maori MP James Carroll was twice Acting Prime Minister 100 years ago.

Davis wants double figure Maori MPs in the election. Realistic? Yes; with six Maori seats, Louisa Wall winning Manurewa anything over a 37% election night vote will activate Willow-Jean Prime, Kiri Allan, Tamati Coffey and Jackson on the list.

The Maori Seats

Bucking the decline of the Greens and New Zealand First, the Maori Party is still rising in the polls. This suggests a reversal of the 2005 and 2008 voting pattern to the Maori electorates supporting Labour candidatures and giving their party vote to the Maori Party.

Maori support recognised leaders and with Deputy leader Davis now number two on the Labour Party list pundits will favour him to win Te Tai Tokerau. However, Maori voters are strategic and in all likelihood will opt for Harawira knowing they can get a second northern MP Davis via the list. Flavell as incumbent leader wins Waiariki. With one or two list MPs in a tight election, the Maori Party - Mana accord could still have a role in forming either a National or Labour government.

The Maori Party has an outside chance in Te Tai Hauauru although the elevation of Rurawhe will strengthen his chance of defending the homeland of Ratana and Dame Tariana. The same applies for Mahuta in Hauraki Waikato.

The combined Mana – Maori Party vote would have won the 2013 Ikaroa Rawhiti by-election but Meka Whaitiri is unlikely to lose after victory in 2014. The East Coast has legacy through Parekura Horomia and Whaitiri is the most assiduous of the Maori MPs. The Maori Party is not strong enough in the south to take Te Tai Tonga.

In Tamaki Makaurau, Peeni Henare is an emerging leader. Shane Taurima for the Maori Party is talented and smart. Between 2008 and 2014, the Greens increased their vote threefold. Turei’s resignation tilts for Labour.

Any combination of a Labour government if partnered with New Zealand First, the Greens and/or the Maori Party would bring a record number of Maori MPs on to the government benches. Providence might deliver the paradox that the fate of the independent Maori voice and equality for Maori within Labour rests with Labour partnering with a party it may not need.

The person most likely to galvanise the Maori vote in 2017 is Kelvin Davis.


Dr Rawiri Taonui is a Professor of Maori & Indigenous Studies at Massey University. He is a well-known commentator on Maori issues and has won several writing awards.

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