THAT LABOUR’S MAORI CAUCUS is potentially powerful cannot be doubted. It is large, has a strong leader in Willie Jackson, and is surrounded by well-meaning Pakeha progressives who struggle to say “No” to its demands. For Maori, it is difficult to imagine a more encouraging political environment.
The key metric, however, will be what the Maori Caucus is able to deliver. Creating Maori wards is not the same as creating jobs. Building support for profound constitutional change in Aotearoa-New Zealand is not the same as building houses. Labour reclaimed the Maori seats in 2017 by re-presenting itself as the party that cared about the basics: jobs, homes, education and health. In 2020 it started losing them again for not caring enough.What, then, would a genuinely powerful Maori Caucus do? What policies would it insist upon? More to the point, since the single most important question in politics is always “Or you’ll what?”: does the Maori Caucus possess the wherewithal to enforce its demands?
In case you’re wondering what sort of threats a powerful Labour Party faction might make get its own way, here’s a story from Labour’s past.
Way back in 1988, when it began to look as though the Labour Left had acquired sufficient clout within the party organisation to start de-selecting the leading lights of the “Rogernomics” faction – starting with Richard Prebble in Auckland Central – the reaction was swift and brutal. According to Matt McCarten, upwards of 17 “Rogernomes” told the leadership of the party organisation that, faced with de-selections, they would quit the party altogether and collapse the government. The leaders of the trade unions were cowed by a different threat. They were told that unless they “persuaded” their younger activists (like Matt McCarten) to pull their heads in, then the crucial protection of compulsory membership would be legislated away. Not to be outdone, Prebble himself obtained a court injunction against the NZ Council of his own party which, essentially, secured the status-quo in the Auckland Central seat. Needless to say, the party caved-in to every one of the “Rogernomics” faction’s demands.
That’s what a powerful faction looks like – that is what it can do.
Which raises the obvious questions: “Is the Maori Caucus that powerful?”, and, “Is it willing to go that far?”
On the evidence to date, the answer to both of those questions is “No.”
Were the Maori Caucus as absolutely determined to see their policies enacted as those ruthless Rogernomes, they would long ago have issued a démarche to Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson on the vexed questions of welfare and housing – issues of critical significance to Maori, and precisely the sort of issues that Labour candidates in the Maori seats had promised to address hard and early. They would have pointed out to their Pakeha colleagues the huge risks attached to not making progress quickly in both areas. Their people were suffering and Labour would be judged by how quickly and how comprehensively it tackled the closely related problems of poverty and homelessness.
Had any of their colleagues been foolhardy enough to put the question: “Or you’ll what?” The cold political logic of their position dictates a very obvious reply. “Or we’ll abandon the Labour Party and offer ourselves to the Maori Party. From a relatively powerless two MPs, the Maori Party’s parliamentary strength will swell to 15 MPs – without whose votes Jacinda’s government will hang by a thread – held by Marama Davidson.”
If Labour fails to deliver for Maori, then the Maori Party will be the prime beneficiary of the Maori Caucus’s inability to secure the assistance of their Pakeha colleagues. Labour’s Maori MPs will, accordingly, be replaced by politicians much more willing to exercise the leverage made possible by their party’s possession of the Maori seats. If the Maori Caucus can’t follow this logic, and if it is unwilling to act on it, then how powerful is it, really?
Sadly, the fact that none of the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) have been fully implemented; and that the necessary mobilisation of state resources required to get on top of a waiting-list for social housing which now exceeds 22,000 has not been ordered; strongly suggests that, when it comes to delivering the basics, the members of the Maori Caucus have proved to be no more effective than the Maori Party MPs who opted to throw in their lot with John Key’s National Party.
This conclusion is only strengthened when the Maori Caucus’s policy victories are analysed. Such budgetary successes as they have been able to rustle-up were modest: the sort of sums that will keep a programme or two going for a couple of years; nothing more. Unable to unlock the funds necessary for genuine transformation, Labour’s Maori MPs – just like the Maori Party MPs before them – have opted to settle for fiscally undemanding victories on the cultural front. The most obvious of these being the new, compulsory history curriculum, and the legislative facilitation of Maori wards in local government.
While these cultural “wins” may not be all that costly, fiscally-speaking, they have the potential to unleash an electorally expensive political backlash from aggrieved Pakeha voters. The tumult surrounding the foreshore and seabed legislation generated an electoral response that came perilously close to delivering power to a National Party leader pledged to diminish the Treaty of Waitangi, quash the whole notion of a Treaty “partnership” and abolish the Maori seats. That was a very big bullet for Maori to have dodged. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that conservative Pakeha are going to keep on missing.
If the Maori Caucus has set its sights on bringing forward some, or all, of the constitutional changes arising out of the consultation exercise headed-up by Moana Jackson, then it is likely to encounter the same polite refusals that John Key offered to Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. Progressive Pakeha MPs are known to talk a good game when it comes to the Treaty and Te Reo, but they are also acutely aware that this is still the Crown’s country – and the Crown does not share power. Neither is a Labour government which owes its absolute parliamentary majority to the votes of “Middle New Zealand” – i.e. Middle-Class Pakeha New Zealanders – likely to embrace policies radical enough to frighten them back to National.
Back in 1988, the Rogernomes were so convinced that their policies were what New Zealand needed that they were willing to abandon their party and destroy their government rather than see their achievements watered down or rolled back. How convinced is the Maori Caucus that its policies are what their people need? And how far are they willing to go to make sure that the bi-cultural future they’re seeking is not, once again, put on hold?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 23 February 2021.