When I was young and apolitical, I didn’t get around to voting. It was the ‘80s. Party time.
I met my first politician when I was a law student on work experience, fluffing around his Mangere electorate office trying to be useful. The lawyer was an MP. He’d entertain me with funny stories about his constituents and fellow parliamentarians, and make me cups of tea. It was 1984.
Then came the snap election which spelled the end of Robert Muldoon as the prime minister. The man making me a cuppa was David Lange. He became the youngest PM at the time and led the Fourth Labour Government into an era of radical economic and political change. New Zealand has never been the same since.
I didn’t vote in that election. Nor in the following three. Not because I was uninterested. On the contrary, the more politicised I became, the less inclined I was to vote.
I knew that my Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa ancestors never signed Te Tiriti. Nor did they cede sovereignty or rangatiratanga. Others who signed did so to reaffirm their sovereignty. That’s well documented by scholars and oral histories.
And it’s backed up by the Waitangi Tribunal during their inquiry into 420 claims in the Far North. In their 2014 report on Te Paparahi o te Raki, the Tribunal reaffirmed that “rangatira did not cede sovereignty in 1840.”
The Treaty didn’t give the Crown power to govern Māori — just to govern Pākehā. The deal was that Māori would continue to assert their authority, their rangatiratanga. And there’d be this other space created where joint decisions would be made.
Parliament is not that space no matter how many times we yell tino rangatiratanga. Or how many fabulous brown people we plug into the House of Representatives. Or how many awesome Māori political parties we organise.
The numbers are stacked against us. Election time is all about how we reshuffle chess pieces on a board game controlled by others — whether it’s Māori MPs inside a major party or Māori sitting “at the table” with the other major party.
Without the kind of constitutional transformation talked about by the likes of Moana Jackson, Whatarangi Winiata and Mason Durie, talk of tino rangatiratanga or mana motuhake at government level is just an illusion.
That’s why some people choose not to vote at all in the general elections.
In 1990, my friends and I were part of a grassroots movement fighting for Treaty-based justice. Community organisations led by Te Runanga Whakawhanaunga i Ngā Hahi (Māori Council of Churches) came together to capture that protest non-vote. Thousands signed the Vote Tino Rangatiratanga register.
The first time I voted in a general election was when my husband-at-the-time stood for Mana Motuhake. It was 1996. Not only did I think him well qualified and an excellent fit for parliament, I quite liked the idea of him in Wellington, me in Auckland.
He was of the belief you had to go inside the belly of the beast to change things. I was more: “Let’s smash it over from the outside.”
It's the perennial question. I’ve even asked it of myself. Where can you be most useful? On the inside or outside?
The second time I voted was in 2005. The Māori Party, formed in protest at Labour’s 2004 Foreshore and Seabed legislation, was contesting its first election. I knew the parliamentary system was still inconsistent with tino rangatiratanga. But Tariana Turia, Hone Harawira, Pita Sharples and Te Ururoa Flavell (and my switched-on mates working behind the scenes) were people I admired. I felt sure they’d be able to push that constitutional kaupapa to the fore. So I sent in a koha and voted.
Then it all fell apart. Hone took off to start up MANA and the two camps emerged with their followers hissing at each other across Facebook. And I was seriously hōhā that we had a political party called Māori, yet we still couldn’t keep it together.
That’s the other thing about this Westminster system we have. It was designed to be adversarial and divisive. And our own people buy right into it.
During the 2017 election campaign, New Zealand’s obsession with poll-dancing prompted resignations, scaremongering and deepening divisions, especially over the Māori seats. There was plenty of trash talk about who was more Māori, more kaupapa-driven, more representative of tino rangatiratanga — and who was a sell-out.
Perception, however, is everything. No matter how often the Māori Party said they were an independent voice, they were perceived by Māori voters as simply too close to a National government that’s been damaging our people and environment.
Anger over the foreshore and seabed paled in comparison to a genuine fear about how much more the most vulnerable among us can handle under another term of National. The more noises the Māori Party made about historical betrayals by Labour, the more they fuelled suspicions that, if push-came-to-shove, the Māori Party would choose National. And that would mean more of the same.
Surprisingly, it was the Lange government (1984-89) that promoted the interests of big business over social priorities. From that time, we've seen the rich get richer and the poor told to try harder. There’s been immense suffering.
Like many others, Jacinda Ardern has described the neoliberalism of the last 30 years as a failure although she has yet to explain how she would dismantle it. For many voters, however, Jacinda represents the potential for more kindness — and an opportunity for Māori, to regroup and gather strength after a brutal nine years.
This year I voted. Not for a party, but for breathing space. I hoped the Māori Party would be part of a Labour-led coalition that might put the brakes on neoliberalism. I envisaged the possibility of an increased number of Māori MPs exercising leadership by setting aside egos and party colours to build a strong cross-party accord on issues that really mattered to our people — issues that would extend beyond ideology and a change of government. Perhaps even push for that constitutional conversation to continue?
Small stuff, big ask.
However, I underestimated the depth of feeling against the Māori Party. It’s clear they did, too.
I really feel for Te Ururoa and Marama. Lots of good people have been voted out over the years, but to have your own people overwhelmingly reject your party must be devastating. It should give cause for serious reflection. Unfortunately, Marama is blaming Māori voters and non-voters — everyone but herself — for the party’s humiliating defeat.
Instead of ridiculing Māori voters for exercising their rangatiratanga within a system that severely limits our rangatiratanga, it might be wiser to meditate on the nature of rangatiraranga.
Instead of rubbishing Labour’s Māori MPs, perhaps ask why so many Māori Party voters lost faith.
Instead of going on about the loss of “the Māori voice,” ask why theirs in particular is no longer welcome.
Instead of blaming those who didn’t vote, both parties should ask why they couldn’t attract more new voters.
And instead of declaring Māori are “returning to the age of colonisation”, how about a reality check? We never left it. We're soaking in it. And that's the problem.
Despite nine years “at the table,” the seating arrangement is still the same. Māori aren’t at the head of the table. We are still fighting for crumbs.
Our Māori political candidates can't even rise above the divisiveness of the parliamentary system to demonstrate the values that we take pride in, let alone tip the table over. And that’s an indictment of how enmeshed we are in the colonial machinery.
In the aftermath of the election, there is plenty of bitterness all across social media. Huge divisions. It's ugly — and it feels very 1981. Ironically, it's the fiery Hone Harawira, whose MANA party was rejected a second time, who called for calm by saying: “Our people are not dumb."
The fact is Māori have made a conscious and active choice, as they did when they voted in five Māori Party MPs in 2008.
The Māori Party was not the first Māori party and it won't be the last. Hone Harawira’s MANA Movement and Matiu Rata’s Mana Motuhake will be remembered. Others — such as Tau Henare's Mauri Pacific, Tuariki Delamere’s Te Tawharau, Dalvanius Prime’s Piri Wiri Tua and Alamein Kopu’s dodgy Mana Wahine Te Ira Tangata affair — probably won’t be.
Perhaps it’s time for everyone to have a cuppa and a lie-down, and to stop lobbing grenades at one another.
These are interesting times. There are 28 MPs with Māori whakapapa in the House. Not all are advocates for Māori, in fact, some represent policy that's destructive to our people.
Among the 13 Māori Labour MPs, there are three new women and the first openly gay MP in a Māori electorate. Marama Davidson returns as an impressive and committed advocate for Māori within the Greens. Other experienced fighters for our people are back in parliament.
The table settings are laid out and while there's no doubt who's still in charge of the menu, let’s see if a new combination of guests can at least improve the conversation.
Tariana, Pita, Hone and Te Ururoa took the Māori Party to parliament, fought for our people and did many good things. However, their greatest legacies are the movements each inspired outside parliament.
This week at the Silver Scroll Songwriters Awards, I was reminded that it is people power that leads the way.
Jacinda Ardern and I were invited to announce and present the Maioha award for best song in te reo Māori.
Jacinda described waiata and te reo as “the soundtrack to our nation.” She said how she hoped that her generation would be the last to grow up not surrounded by te reo. After she spoke, I talked about those game-changers over the years — people like Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and Pita Sharples, and all the parents, teachers, activists, elders, community leaders, journalists, and creatives — who built a movement outside parliament to reclaim our language, then dragged New Zealand’s political leaders into the conversation.
Who would have thought that in 2017 te reo Māori would actually become an election issue?
Transformation isn’t led by political parties. It begins with a grassroots movement. As Moana Jackson says, any real change takes time. It requires imagination and a great deal of courage.
Without the buffer of the Māori Party "at the table", chances are that time may come sooner than later.