Last week’s election result has delivered a new generation of Māori into parliament, writes Jamie Tahana. They’re the kōhanga reo generation — strong in their reo, whakapapa and identity, and determined to hold their ground as Māori.
When Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke appeared in an electorate debate on The Hui two weeks ago, she opened with a powerful declaration.
“Don’t be scared, because the kōhanga reo generation are here, and we have a huge movement and a huge wave of us coming through,” she said with hands clenched, rhythmically pounding the podium with each word.
Last weekend, the 21-year-old became the youngest member of parliament in 171 years, winning Hauraki-Waikato by more than 1,300 votes for Te Pāti Māori, and in the process ending Nanaia Mahuta’s 27-year run in parliament.
Hana-Rawhiti was just one in what appears to be a wave of generational change that has swept through the Māori seats, as voters on the Māori roll once again showed themselves to be adept tacticians of MMP.
Most of that seems to have gone the way of Te Pāti Māori’s determined campaign for the rangatahi vote. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer took Te Tai Hauāuru, Rawiri Waititi increased his majority in Waiariki, while, in the night’s other major upset, Tākuta Ferris surprised most observers when he won Te Tai Tonga by more than a thousand votes, a seat written off by many as a Tirikatene stronghold.
Ikaroa-Rāwhiti was the only Māori electorate to fall Labour’s way, but there is something of a generational shift there too, with Cushla Tangaere-Manuel ending Meka Whaitiri’s decade-long political career. Te Tai Tokerau and Tāmaki Makaurau remain on a knife-edge, waiting for special votes to come through.
The Māori electorates are always the most fascinating to follow on election night. They’re always capable of great surprises and shifts. Like when Labour swept all seven in 2017, banishing Te Pāti Māori to political exile. Or when Labour was punished harshly in the wake of the foreshore and seabed in 2005. Or how about when New Zealand First took a clean sweep in 1996, then nearly lost it all three years later?
Māori have always quickly adapted to the political game, no matter how inequitable the field may have been (particularly pre-MMP). As the 1986 Royal Commission into the electoral system said: “The Māori seats have come to be regarded as an important concession to, and principal expression of, their constitutional position under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”
From their first days in 1867, they’ve been used as an important platform to demand that the Crown honour its side of Te Tiriti, even if it more often than not fell on deaf ears. In 1868, Mete Kīngi Paetahi flummoxed the house when he spoke about Māori grievances in te reo, forcing a suspension of proceedings while an interpreter was sought.
Paetahi was replaced in Western Māori by Wi Parata, who spoke about how Pākehā weren’t qualified to make decisions about Māori and called for a commission to look into grievances related to land confiscations and broken Treaty promises. In parliament at the same time was Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Wiremu Katene, the first Māori cabinet minister.
Tangata whenua held to the seats while also pursuing their own kotahitanga, their representatives making often lonely calls as land rapidly diminished, the Crown’s cannons and gunboats tearing their way down the North Island, the ink of legislation taking the rest. As speeches and discussion from the time show, the Māori seats were only ever meant to be temporary: just until our land was gone or we as a people died out, they said.
Yet here we are.
The Paetahi, Parata and Katene era was swapped out in the late 19th century for a new generation of academics, the Young Māori Party led by the likes of Apirana Ngata, Hone Heke Ngāpua, and Māui Pōmare. They were driven by a sense of preservation, at a time of loss and death where hopes of independence seemed to fade. They fought to retain the foundations of a culture and people whose lands, lives and power had been brutally stripped in only a few decades.
They held the seats and pursued their development schemes and rapprochement until the people swapped the academics for the prophets, with the rise of Rātana. Of the four symbols given by Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana to Michael Joseph Savage when he cemented an alliance with Labour, was a potato, representing the loss of Māori land and sustenance, and a broken watch, for the broken promises of Te Tiriti.
For these early MPs, adaptation to the pressures of colonisation seemed to be the motivator, but never total submission. The stories of their people held strong, as well as a belief in what the Treaty offered. As Apirana Ngata said when he was finally voted out in 1943: “I may go out, but the electorate carries on.”
But the conservatism and politeness of these MPs held centre stage for only so long, giving way in the late 20th century to a rising resentment among the youth of the urban migration. While still a Labour MP, Matiu Rata doggedly pursued a Waitangi Tribunal, a public holiday for Waitangi Day, and statutory recognition of te reo Māori.
More dramatic generational shifts came later in the 20th century, with Ngā Tamatoa on the scene and marches and activism up and down the country. People had tired of waiting for the Crown to act and assimilation was dead because here was a new generation who’d broken out of their silence. Rata would leave Labour to form Mana Motuhake (though he never won a Māori seat again), but the groundwork had been laid.
The campaign cry for MMP was “More Māori in Parliament”, and that has proved to be the case. It injected further energy and competition into the Māori seats (Who can forget the middle finger raised to Labour by New Zealand First in 1996?) but also brought Māori kaupapa outside of a narrow band of electorates.
This year we have a new generation of Māori MPs in several parties. The kōhanga reo generation, backed by an inexorable demographic change, and strong in their reo, whakapapa and identity, are ready to step up to the plate — defined by a uniting faith in Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a source of rectification and unity.
Each generation tried different approaches. First was a determination to survive, and now it’s to thrive.
On Breakfast, Tākuta Ferris, eyes beaming, would say he was the product of a generational shift, but added: “We’re not really here to replace them. We are just trying to bring our voice up, bring our young people into the conversations.”
While a fresh tide might have rolled into the Māori seats, the new MPs find themselves in the midst of a tiringly familiar fight. The first political flip-flop of incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon’s premiership has been to once again rule in Act’s demand for a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi.
Few countries would threaten its founding document in such a callously casual way. Here’s a government, driven by rule of law, but proposing to overrule the country’s founding document and the decades of jurisprudence that come with it. Yet that is where the country now finds itself, with David Seymour this week saying he wants to make a referendum one of his bottom lines, without being able to define what it is he wants to ask.
It follows an uncomfortable election where politicians too often lazily leapt to play on cultural insecurities, which often bubble to the surface at even the slightest whiff of progress towards equity. The backlash usually manifests itself in the most curious of ways — whether it’s the restoration of a place name, a waiata on the radio, or a Māori greeting in a weather forecast. Sometimes the most minuscule of kupu on a public rubbish bin is enough to send someone into a midnight fury with a bucket of yellow paint.
Rather than damp down anxieties, a referendum on Te Tiriti o Waitangi would set reconciliation back generations. With Australia’s rejection last weekend of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, we already have a fresh example of the devastating effect of putting the question of a people’s right to exist to the majority.
New Zealand too often smugly claims that colonisation here is better than elsewhere, as if that’s meant to placate. But, in the discussion about a referendum so far, we’ve already had to endure drearily familiar claims and animated discussions about our rights as if the questions have never been asked — or answered with tiring regularity.
Indigenous rights are yet again being subjected to the need for “debate” by politicians and columnists who see Māori rights as a threat to democracy, while never questioning how this is all spawned by the undemocratic act of colonisation.
In the dying weeks of this torrid election campaign, Ngāi Tahu marked 25 years since the passing of its Treaty settlement. In the months leading up to that groundbreaking feat, four buildings were attacked, including a marae and a community law centre, torched in the dead of the night. Fences were tagged and editorials declared the settlement process anti-democratic. A quarter of a century later, we’re still waiting for the sky to fall in.
But it just might yet.
For many, the settlement process was entered into in good faith, with many iwi agreeing to settle for less than two percent of what was taken, in the hope of recalibrating their relationship with the Crown, to one where Te Tiriti o Waitangi would — finally — be honoured. Surely this risks undermining all of that progress. A referendum could risk Luxon undoing what he’s said is one of National’s greatest achievements.
But the great irony is that the very thing some in this country want to wish away is what offers the fertile ground to plant our roots as a multicultural nation. Te Tiriti o Waitangi was a promise between Māori and the Crown to each other. It offers a shared sense of nationhood, and gives people from elsewhere a chance to make a home on this land.
In 2014, when the political cycle once again set its sights on the existence of the Māori seats, then-prime minister John Key — as part of his agreement with the Māori Party — refused to act on it, predicting “hikois from hell”. The incoming prime minister would be wise to consider those words from his political hero.
Because the kōhanga reo generation is here. They’ve found their voice, and they know how to use it.
Jamie Tahana (Ngāti Pikiao/Ngāti Makino/Tapuika) is a journalist and broadcaster who has worked in both Aotearoa and the Pacific. He grew up between his Dutch mother in the Hutt and his Te Arawa dad in Rotorua, going on to qualify with a master’s degree at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University. He was Māori news editor at RNZ until May 2023, when he left for his OE.
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