THE EXTRAORDINARY MUDDLE into which the Labour Government manoeuvred itself over “Three Waters” was entirely avoidable. At its heart lay the all-too-common failing manifested over-and-over again by the senior Pakeha politicians of both major parties. Unconsciously, for the most part, Pakeha political leaders consign “all that Māori stuff” to the agenda space reserved for non-urgent and/or too-difficult-to-explain issues.
This Pakeha failure to treat Māori issues with the same seriousness as those referred to them by Treasury, MFAT, MBIE, Health, Education and Social Development is made a lot easier when Māori colleagues are willing to take responsibility for their own advancement. In the case of Three Waters, Labour’s leadership was quite happy to leave pretty much the whole thing to Nanaia Mahuta. Until it all started turning to custard.
When that happened, the response of Labour’s Pakeha leadership was instructive. First, the person in charge when everything started to go wrong, Jacinda Ardern, decided it was time to go and do something else. Second, Ardern’s successor, Chris Hipkins, took the whole Three Waters project away from Mahuta, demoted her, and then sent her into what looked suspiciously like near-permanent exile. Third, Mahuta’s replacement, at the helm of the now renamed “Affordable Water Reform”, was that emphatically Pakeha Kiwi bloke, Kieran McAnulty.
The political meaning of these decisions was not at all difficult to understand. In the words of Bob Dylan: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
“You” may not, but a surprisingly large fraction of the New Zealand news media found it well-nigh impossible to feel (let alone explain) the wind-shift. Very few commentators were willing to call Hipkins’ decisions what any reasonable observer could hardly avoid calling them: the ruthless reassertion of Pakeha power and control. Nor was there much discernible enthusiasm for reporting on the ramifications of the Labour Māori Caucus’s successful defence of the co-governance elements of Three Waters. A more hands-on style of Pakeha leadership had clearly come at the price of keeping co-governance in play. How else to explain McAnulty becoming a more eloquent defender of tino rangatiratanga than Willie Jackson?
There was a similar failure on the part of many journalists to link the defection of the Labour MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti, Meka Whaitiri, with the Government’s arguably racist “bread-and-buttering” of Māori policy. A gleeful John Tamihere might hail Labour’s loss of Whaitiri as Te Pāti Māori’s gain, but he forbore from explaining her departure in terms of the Labour leadership’s unconscious prejudices concerning the responsibility – or otherwise – of their Māori colleagues. Hipkins’ refusal to reinstate Whaitiri as a full member of Cabinet may, or may not, have been justified, but the Māori woman who leap-frogged the Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP into Cabinet, Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime, presents as a very different sort of Māori politician to the woman who preserved the flax-roots nurtured by her kaiako, Parekua Horomia.
The defenestration of Elizabeth Kerekere raises some very similar questions about just how far down the road that leads to “transformation” Pakeha politicians – even Green politicians – are prepared to go with their Māori colleagues. It’s one thing to blithely swear fealty to the “principles” of te Tiriti o Waitangi, quite another to put those principles into practice in ways that ruffle the feathers of the status quo. Blaming the world’s ills on “Cis White Males” has a revolutionary ring to it, but it is not at all the same as promising te iwi Māori control over Aotearoa’s water, or restoring “stolen” Māori land to its rightful custodians.
While the polls continue to identify Te Pāti Māori as the holder of the votes necessary to keep Labour and the Greens on the Treasury benches, however, the contemplation of revolutionary demands is something the centre-left will find extremely difficult to avoid.
Of course, contemplation and implementation are two very different things. Jacinda Ardern contemplated a revolutionary anti-capitalist transformation in the early days of her prime-ministership. More than that, she went to Waitangi and instructed Māori to hold her government accountable for how faithfully it upheld the principles of the Treaty. Ardern soon discovered, however, that implementing Labour’s promises was a lot harder than making them. This was serious, because nothing is more likely to cause a revolution than raising the expectations of the poor and the marginalised – and then failing to meet them.
Ultimately, the management of expectations may turn out to be as big a problem for Te Pāti Māori as it is for Labour and the Greens. If Whaitiri is going to win Ikaroa-Rawhiti for her new party, then she is going to have to paint her former Māori colleagues as politicians who talk big, but, whenever the Pakeha majority shows signs of restiveness, allow their colleagues to slam on the policy brakes and throw Labour’s political vehicle into reverse.
It is vital that Te Pāti Māori does not do the same. Its promises of transformation must be unequivocal and non-negotiable. Either, Labour and the Greens embrace the revolution, or, they shuffle-off to the Opposition benches. Regardless of the centre-left’s choice, Te Pāti Māori must not loosen its grip on the radical bunting.
It is difficult to see the Labour Party that abandoned the transformational policy agenda of its Māori caucus for a “bread-and-butter” manifesto being willing to radicalise itself in sympathy with the Greens and Te Pāti Māori. Frankly, it is easier to see Labour quietly reconciling itself to electoral defeat. Sitting back and watching National and Act attempting to solve New Zealand’s rapidly growing list of intractable problems must, surely, have its attractions?
But, what if the New Zealand electorate refuses to let Labour throw the electoral fight? What if Te Pāti Māori mobilises younger voters in unprecedented numbers? What if the Greens do the same? What if, in spite of Labour’s best efforts, the electorate swings sharply to the left? What if, when all the votes are counted, National and Act simply do not have enough to form a government? What then?
One answer is that Labour and National might suddenly discover that they have more in common with one another than they do with the parties representing the extremes, and agree to form a Grand Coalition. Such a solution would, however, offer only a short-term respite, since the processes of radicalisation on both the right and the left would, almost certainly, intensify.
The choice facing voters in three years’ time might not even include Labour and National. “All that Māori stuff” may no longer permit the reassertion of Pakeha power and control. It is even possible that Pakeha may no longer want it.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 8 May 2023.