Māori political power has never been greater, writes Matt McCarten. But that brings its own challenge for Labour’s Māori MPs.


These are golden years for Māori politics and politicians. Māori political power has never been greater in our nation’s history.

Matiu Rata resigned from the Labour Party in 1979 because of its ambivalence to Māori. He founded Mana Motuhake and contested every election up to his death in 1997. He wanted strong Māori voices around the cabinet table. Nobody then, or even after the last election, could have imagined the rise of Māori power we now have at the centre of the Beehive.

Thirty percent of the inner cabinet are Māori, including the most powerful deputy prime minister in living memory. With the two Pasifika ministers, the brown faces around the cabinet room each Monday is a whopping 40 percent. Add to this the four Labour ministers outside of cabinet who are two Maori and two Pasifika. Every party in parliament now has a leader or deputy leader who has Māori heritage. The National Party and New Zealand First have both.

This is just extraordinary.

The result of this revolution is that the cynical Māori bashing for political advantage of yesteryear no longer has a political home. This has changed our national discourse for the better.

It wasn’t so long ago that the political playbook was predictable. Whenever the right-wing wanted to fire up their base, they would launch ugly racist attacks on “Māori privilege”. The white mainstream left-wing would, in most cases, dive for cover, and sometimes even join in on the kicking. The result was that Māori (and Pasifika) were kept on the bottom of the rung, with a boot firmly on their throats.

Ironically, it’s Don Brash and Helen Clark who are the unintentional authors of our current good fortune. After Brash’s calculated racist Orewa speech in 2004 attacking Māori, his political polls soared. Then prime minister Helen Clark panicked and jumped on board the racist train, for political expediency. She deliberately turned the seabed and foreshore debate into a debacle so she could prove to “middle New Zealand” that she could keep Māori in their place.

She drove Tariana Turia out of her government and the Māori Party was formed. John Key saw his opportunity. He rolled Brash and beat Clark. Once prime minister, he co-opted the Māori Party and quietly settled the seabed and foreshore problem.

The new National-Māori Party partnership prevented the right-wing using Māori as a kicking ball. It also made Labour realise it could never take Māori for granted again.

Every party had to genuinely compete for Māori support. It’s no accident every party now boasts of having more Māori in their caucus than the percentage of the general population. The notable exception is the Greens, although they’ve made it up somewhat by electing their sole Māori MP, Marama Davidson, as their co-leader.

But this era of Māori power also means a new challenge. The days of blaming others for not being able to get policies and access to the resources — to close the gaps between Māori and non-Māori statistics — is over. Many of the past impediments no longer exist.

When this government is led by a prime minister who is without question the most supportive of Māori empowerment in our history, Māori who sit around the cabinet table have no excuse. We have budget surpluses in the billions. But, so far, their performance has been middling — and that puts them at risk.

Recent polls have given the political class a shock. The “interim occupant” of the National Party leadership should have no business being a serious contender for the prime minister’s office. But it could happen. Two polls released this month show National rising and Labour dipping. The Greens and NZ First coalesce around the 5 percent threshold that makes the pundits excitable about one or both of them being tossed out of parliament altogether. That won’t happen. The Greens and NZ First always rise in the election campaigns.

But the gap between the right and left blocs is too tight for comfort. And there’s a narrow pathway for National to squeak into government. Narrow, but possible.

Māori will play a pivotal role in that.

For National to have any chance of winning, they need the Māori Party to win at least one seat. Winston Peters will never countenance having the Māori Party in a government — the Greens are irritating enough — so that will force the Māori Party to shack up with National if they make it back.

Some National MPs are aware of this and are introducing Māori Party candidates to Simon Bridges to make nice. Which he is.

Where Labour is vulnerable is that if, after three years, the Māori MPs can’t show measurable improvements for Māori when they’ve had the power to do so, they will give the Māori Party a strong weapon to bludgeon them. There are three Māori seats that are vulnerable. But taking just one seat could give New Zealand its biggest election surprise ever.

The three possible targets are Waiariki, Te Tai Hauāuru, and Tāmaki Makaurau. The Māori Party have strong candidates in the first two seats and needs just 1,000 votes in one and 2,000 votes in the other, to flip the tables.

If Labour doesn’t have a strong story, those seats will be in play.

The most interesting is Tāmaki Makaurau. Sitting MP Peeni Henare was recently accused of playing games over Whānau Ora funding. When respected Māori heavyweights publicly criticised his behaviour, he was foolishly dismissive and tone deaf.

The prime minister sensed the danger and invited the main protagonists, including Whānau Ora founder Tariana Turia, to Premier House to discuss their concerns. She seems to have settled things down. For the rest of the year, Labour can’t have any of these fronts open up.

Peeni’s carelessness does, however, give John Tamihere a strong reason to run as a Māori Party candidate, attacking his competency and commitment to Māori.

It will be a rollicking campaign where anything can happen. Either Peeni keeps the seat and ensures Jacinda keeps her Beehive office, or John pulls one out of the hat. Then all options are on the table.

There’s another possible scenario in Tāmaki Makaurau. The Greens’ Marama Davidson stood in the seat last election. She wasn’t co-leader then, yet she won 22 percent of the vote. If John Tamihere makes inroads into Peeni’s votes, and if the Greens put a big effort into the seat, it’s possible Marama could come through the middle and win. Now that would turn the political world upside down.

I told you these are golden years for Māori politics and politicians.

Matt McCarten (Ngāpuhi) is a unionist with a long involvement in politics, mainly as a political strategist and organiser with the Alliance and then the Labour Party, where he was formerly chief of staff. He’s based in Auckland.


© E-Tangata, 2020

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