Matt McCarten is back doing union work — these days with the Employee Protection Agency — after a number of years in politics, mainly as a strategist and organiser for the Alliance and then for the Labour Party. All along, he’s been known as a lively and astute commentator, as well as for his distinctive background that includes a Ngāpuhi whakapapa, an orphanage upbringing, centre-left leanings, visits from cancer, and an endless supply of ideas. Here he looks back on the birth of the Māori Party and the struggle for an independent Māori voice in government.
There’s no doubt that the loss of the Māori Party has been a loss for Māori — and I had a hand in that, so I won’t duck that.
Leading up to last year’s election, I could see that their co-leaders, Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, were going to go with National again, so the Labour strategy had to be head-on opposition to the Māori Party so that they wouldn’t survive to be a coalition partner for the Nats.
My connection with the party goes back to the time when Matiu Rata and Mana Motuhake joined the Alliance Party when I was the director of the Alliance. Mana Motuhake was an independent voice for Māori and that voice has always been there one way or another, and always will be. It’s a part of the constant struggle that Māori have.
But another step towards forming an independent Māori political party came when, early in 2004, Don Brash delivered his infamous Orewa speech where he was on about Māori privilege.
The privilege he spoke of was fantasy, of course. I, like pretty well any other Māori, would swap my “privilege” for yours, Don. Any day.
But that speech struck a chord with many Pākehā, Brash’s National Party support soared, that frightened Labour, and Helen Clark panicked.
Then, when the foreshore and seabed issue surfaced, a massive protest hikoi descended on parliament, and Helen, in effect, threw Māori under the bus. Not simply by legislation that pandered to unjustified Pākehā fears about losing access to the beaches, but by refusing to meet the hikoi marchers, some of whom she described as “haters and wreckers”, and commenting that she’d rather see a celebrity sheep called Shrek because he was good company.
Her behaviour was a reminder of the two realities in New Zealand politics.
One reality was that Māori, with around 13 percent of the population at the time, could be still acknowledged, sort of, as the Crown’s Treaty partner. At least on formal occasions like Waitangi Day.
But the other reality was that both major parties were more than happy to put the boot into Māori if that helped position them in the political centre at election time.
That was the case then. Still is. Always will be. So don’t misunderstand the world we live in.
Anyway, Tariana Turia’s conflict with Labour led to me being approached to help set up the Māori Party seeing that I’d had some experience in pulling parties together. I didn’t warm to that job. I was more inclined to say: “Oh God. I’m tired. Go away.”
But, on this occasion, I felt I couldn’t turn away.
I don’t think, though, that the Māori Party leaders had quite thought it through. A Māori party can provide an independent voice. But it’s a voice that should be there in every government, with a mandate from Māori voters in every one of the seven Māori seats.
The Māori electorate MPs need to serve different interests and carry different responsibilities from other MPs. They represent the Crown’s Treaty partner. And they need to be in each government — at the cabinet table. Not in another room, but right there with their mandate from Māori. Making it clear that we want things. And with our people, our voters, knowing exactly what the political game is.
But the Māori Party got distracted. Drove me crazy. Lost its focus. Reached out to Pasifika voters too, as well as Asian and Pākehā.
That appetite for the support of a wide range of New Zealanders was quite understandable. On one level it made sense. But, overall, it was a stupid move. It fogged up the focus and purpose of the party — to provide a clear-cut, unwavering Māori voice in every government. Election after election. No matter which one of the big parties wins.
From 2008 to 2017, initially with Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples at the helm, the party was able to come to an understanding with John Key and then Bill English, as a sort of brown caucus, or complicit subset, of National.
But Tariana had a different relationship with Labour, a blinkered approach, after her disappointment with Helen. So that limited the Māori Party’s options. And its party leaders made a mistake by running Hone Harawira out of the party instead of embracing him. That made it smaller and less effective.
And so its failure at last year’s election wasn’t a complete surprise. But we shouldn’t look on its years in parliament, and then its rejection by the Māori electorates, as a total failure.
That rebuff was deeply upsetting for many. But, although the party lost its way — or perhaps, more to the point, never quite found its way — it has profoundly shaken up New Zealand politics.
Māori now have a significant role in all the parties. And no party, the Nats especially, can now feel it has the same old licence it once had to attack Māori.
That’s a direct result of the Māori Party. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.
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