Sometime A Great Notion: The fate of the Maori Party offers stark confirmation that ethnic identity, alone, offers an insufficient foundation for enduring electoral success.
THE SWING VOTE. With the formation of the Maori Party in 2004 many Maori looked forward to wielding a permanent “balance of power” over New Zealand politics. With the Maori birth-rate considerably higher than the Pakeha, the wisdom of enrolling on the Maori Roll was thought to be obvious: a demographic guarantee of many more Maori seats. The Maori Vote, overwhelmingly loyal to the Maori Party, would thus become the decisive factor. Neither National nor Labour would be able to govern without its support. The potential for advancing Maori interests seemed limitless.
Eight years later, the political prospects for Maori have significantly diminished. The Maori Party is a dwindling political force, riven by personal jealousies and ideological confusion, and likely to lose at least two (and quite possibly all) of the three Maori Seats it currently holds in 2014.
The two parties most likely to pick up the seats of Te Tai Hauauru, Tamaki Makaurau and Waiariki: Labour and Mana; are both positioned on the left of the political spectrum, making them ideological non-starters as potential National Party allies. The Maori Party vision of constituting a permanent, ideologically agnostic, component within all future coalition governments has vanished. The Maori Swing Vote, it turns out, was a short-lived illusion. Why?
The answer lies in the misapprehension that ethnic identity alone is an unqualified determinant of political allegiance. The founders of the Maori Party: Tariana Turia, Pita Sharples and Professor Whatarangi Winiata all appeared to believe that simply placing the word “Maori” in front of the word “Party” was enough. Regardless of which social class they belonged to or how much education they’d received, and putting aside all personal experiences and aspirations, the Maori voters’ “natural” cultural affinities would make them unwaveringly loyal Maori Party supporters.
For a few years it looked as though the Maori Party leadership’s assumptions were substantially correct. By 2008 the party held all but two of the Maori Seats and the prospects seemed good for capturing all seven. But the cultural glasses through which the party insisted on observing the Maori electorate had failed to register the brute political facts of their situation.
In the quarter-century since the breakthrough Court of Appeal decision establishing the notion that the Treaty of Waitangi establishes a “partnership” between the Pakeha State and Maori, cultural considerations have increasingly been deployed to mask the embarrassing social gulf which has opened up between the elite wielders of tribally-based, Treaty-settlement-funded corporate power; the narrow layer of well-educated and well-remunerated functionaries who service that power; and the expanding mass of urban and rural Maori who eke out a marginal existence within a New Zealand economy that, increasingly, has little to offer them.
It was the Maori Party’s misfortune to enter into a confidence-and-supply agreement with the National Party just as the Global Financial Crisis was hurling tens-of-thousands of young Maori into joblessness and under-employment. Foolishly, Mrs Turia and Dr Sharples had allowed the overwhelmingly working-class Maori electorate’s eighty-year association with Labour and the New Zealand Left to slip their minds. Of the five Maori Party MPs, only Hone Harawira seemed to appreciate the tremendous damage their association with National was inflicting on the notion of permanent Maori participation in government.
The result was the Mana Party, whose pursuit of the bi-cultural ideals of the 1970s is predicated on first meeting the material needs of Maori and Pakeha working-class New Zealanders. Only when the marginalised, exploited and excluded of both communities have ready access to good jobs, warm and dry homes, and well-resourced hospitals and schools will Mana’s decolonising policies attract the mass support necessary for their success.
The Maori Party’s ambition of exercising a permanent swing vote over New Zealand politics was as short-sighted as it was undemocratic. Throughout human history the universal cry for justice has always attracted more followers than the mystical whisperings of blood and soil. In the end, it isn’t our ethnic origins that determine our electoral choices – it’s our all-too-material interests.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 January 2013.