Friday 11 February 2011

History's On Hone's Side

Media Target: Practically every journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery has spent the past week channelling the Maori Party leadership's antagonistic thoughts towards Hone Harawira. Had they stepped back a few paces from the action, and considered the historical precedents for principled dissidence within New Zealand political parties, they would have realised that Hone's chances of emerging from the current crisis with enhanced - rather than diminished - mana are actually pretty good.

THE CRISIS GRIPPING the Maori Party deserves much better media analysis than it’s getting. The final result of the 2011 General Election may well turn on who emerges victorious from the conflict between Hone Harawira’s faction of the Maori Party and the faction led by Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. What we are witnessing is a struggle of considerable political significance.

In our own struggle to gain perspective on this crisis, what we – the voters – need most is a parliamentary press gallery that places sufficient distance between itself and the main antagonists to give us an independent account of the action.

Sadly, this isn’t happening.

Overwhelmingly, the story that is being relayed to us by the Press Gallery is the story the Maori Party (and, one suspects, the National Party) leadership wants us to hear.

Now, we mustn’t be too hard on our political journalists. Proximity to power is a crucial aspect of parliamentary reporting. Without ready access to cabinet ministers and party leaders the Gallery simply cannot do its job. Proximity isn’t everything, however. To avoid being "captured" by the political movers and shakers, it’s vital that political journalists regularly step outside the parliamentary hothouse to breathe in some un-spun air.

It would also be of great assistance to the Press Gallery’s readers, listeners and viewers if it possessed a slightly firmer grasp on New Zealand’s recent political history. Because, on at least four separate occasions over the course of the past quarter-century we’ve witnessed intra-party crises very similar to the crisis unfolding in the Maori Party .

In 1989 there was Jim Anderton’s defection from the Labour Party. In 1992, Winston Peters defected from the National Party. In 2002, the Alliance – a small group of relatively inexperienced politicians in coalition with the much larger Labour Party – imploded over its leadership’s decision to support the invasion of Afghanistan. And, finally, in 2004, Tariana Turia abandoned Helen Clark’s government over the Foreshore & Seabed Act.

In assessing the many possible outcomes of the current crisis, surely it would be helpful if our political journalists interrogated these historical precedents?

Were they to do so they would quickly discover that the principled defection of a dissident MP is very far from being the slow walk to oblivion that so many Gallery journalists ("assisted", no doubt, by the governing coalition’s spin-doctors) seem to think it is. Because, to the contrary, Jim Anderton, Winston Peters and Tariana Turia were all re-elected by their constituents, and all of them founded a new political party which went on to play a major role in the political life of New Zealand.

The fate of the Alliance is also instructive. Like the Maori Party, the coalition drawn together by Jim Anderton contained elements spanning virtually the entire political spectrum. When a serious conflict erupted these disparate elements simply weren’t prepared to compromise and the party split asunder. Its now separated components were never again able to attract significant electoral support.

What do these historical precedents suggest in relation to the current crisis in the Maori Party?

First, they suggest that if he is forced out of his party Mr Harawira will be triumphantly re-elected by the voters of Te Tai Tokerau.

Second, they suggest that, by forcing Mr Harawira out of the Maori Party, Ms Turia and Mr Sharples would precipitate a fatal split in their nationwide organisation – from which they will find it extremely difficult to recover. (Let’s not forget, the defection of Jim Anderton and his followers effectively kept the Labour Party out of power for three electoral cycles.)

Third, they suggest that if Mr Harawira possesses the courage to test his claim that more than half of Maoridom has tired of the Maori Party’s overly accommodating relationship with National; and if he is prepared to offer Maori voters an alternative political vehicle in November; then Mr Harawira can be reasonably confident of playing a vital role in the formation of New Zealand’s next government.

Listening to the journalists of the Parliamentary Press Gallery regurgitate the private promptings of the Prime Minister’s and the Maori Party’s spin-doctors, we could all be forgiven for assuming that by "dealing decisively" with Mr Harawira, Mr Sharples and Ms Turia have miraculously cauterised their party’s gaping wounds.

Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Self-inflicted damage is always the most difficult to repair.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 February 2011.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I don't get it.

Today you say: "[...] if he is prepared to offer Maori voters an alternative political vehicle in November; then Mr Harawira can be reasonably confident of playing a vital role in the formation of New Zealand’s next government."

One week ago you said: "Even if he won every vote in Te Tai Tokerau, Hone would still be on his own."

That doesn't make any sense.

Nick R said...

This is a pretty selective sample of MPs who have left a party and prospered. That hasn't always been the case. For every Winston Peters there is an Alamein Kopu.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anon @1:21

The context in which I made those remarks was in relation to a New Left Party. Hone leading a mass breakaway from the Maori Party: ah, now, that's a different story altogether.

To: Nick R

You're forgetting, Nick, that I was only referring to "principled dissidents". I don't think Alamein qualifies - do you?

Anonymous said...

Shades of No True Scotsman there, Chris, surely?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anon @3.51

Not at all, Anon.

There have been silly politicians like Brian Connell, and treacherous ones, like Alamein Kopu, and, long before either of them, some very petulant MPs like Brian MacDonnell and John Kirk. But all of the above belong in a very different category to Jim Anderton, Winston Peters and Tariana Turia.

The latter all came to personify a strong political current in the wider community - which they then marshalled into a coherent electoral force.

I grow weary of this "No True Scotsman" thing. It's a bit glib, don't you think - and hardly conducive to serious analysis?

Anonymous said...

Spot on Chris. No way back for the MP if they make the final incision.

Infighting: the cancer of the Left and all repressed peoples since Adam.

Divide and Conquer: the seminal essence of historic oppression refined to an evil art.

Witness the current anti-Hone venom from the Right: subtle, needling; metastasis via careful insidiousness. Softly, softly, speaks the smiling snake lest the real enemy is revealed.

Ae, the elusive grail of incipient kotahitanga hanging by a thread: but a thread of infinitely greater mana than the thin, dissipated strands of the 2001 Alliance council.

Signs are, they've stepped back from the cliff: that sanity and Progression will prevail in this instance.

But watch out for a final, flithy flourish from the wedge-drivers of hate.


SPC said...

I suspect Hone Harawira would be aware that if he formed a party to contest the Maori electorates the MP might be reduced to 2 seats, Labour might pick up 1 and he might have a second electorate MP with him.

But if his party was to be a more viable replacement for the MP, as a coalition builder, some votes from the Pakeha left to bring in another couple of MP's on the party list would be required.

markus said...

And the now-typically right-wing editorial in the latest Listener ('Hone, heck !') just re-inforces your point about the news media's banal regurgitation of official Nat/Maori Party spin. Bring back Finlay McDonald for god sake !!!