A few weeks ago I enjoyed a beer with Lew from Kiwipolitico. Lew is one of my favourite bloggers and is perhaps the most astute political commentator in New Zealand. He is also one of the best commentators when it comes to Maori political issues - or Maori issues in general actually. When we were talking he mentioned that there are two elections happening this year. The main election battle between Labour and National and an election battle for the Maori seats. This is a fairly significant observation in my opinion.
Even under MMP the election is, for the most part, a battle between the two, for lack of a better term, material parties – Labour and National. We may not have an authentic two party system, but we do have a de facto two party system where political discourse occurs on the terms of the two main parties. Other parties are often a secondary concern and rarely penetrate the body politic. This trend will probably continue as New Zealand moves towards presidential style elections.
The other election is, as said, a battle for the Maori seats. A battle for the right to represent Maori. The Maori Party claims, or at least claimed, to represent Maori, however the party never really secured an undisputed mandate to do so. The Maori Party MP’s entered Parliament representing their respective constituents rather than Maori as a whole. The same is true of Parekura Horomia and Nanaia Mahuta. The Maori electorate MP’s wins did not symbolise an endorsement of the Maori Party or Labour Party. Their wins were a personal endorsement and a reflection of their own standing in their respective electorates.
The battle will feature three actors. The Labour Party, the Maori Party and the Mana Party. Three serious contenders. The Labour Party is just looking to secure a few extra seats, but the Maori Party and the Mana Party are seeking a mandate. A secure grip on the Maori seats and the right to say we have the mana to speak on behalf of Maori. The Maori Party desperately wants the mana to act unequivocally for Maori. This was the party’s goal from its genesis. The problem for the Maori Party is that Hone Harawira wants the same and he is making a legitimate claim. Hone realises the Maori Party is compromised and he is having no trouble convincing Maori that that is the case. On the other hand the Labour Party is looking to claim what is, historically speaking, theirs by right.
In my opinion neither Hone nor the Maori Party will secure a mandate. The Labour Party will not either. The political situation is too messy, it is unclear where everyone stands. Hone has yet to cultivate a clear claim as to why he should receive the mana to represent Maori. The Maori Party has given no reason why Maori should trust them again and Labour is yet to repent for the FSA 2004 betrayal. Tangible political issues are dominating Maori thinking as well. Maori are struggling through a violent increase in living costs and a brutal government agenda, for example ACC cuts and assaults on workers rights. There is little room for symbolic questions at the moment.
But is it even possible to represent all Maori? Probably not. Maori often act in unison and are united on many issues, especially questions of tino rangatiratanga. However, there will always be diversity of opinion. Maori may agree on an outcome, but there will be one thousand different ideas on how to get there. Maori may seem integrated, especially in terms of values, but there will always be subtle differences and small nuances that separate different iwi, hapu and even whanau.
I do think it is possible to hold the mana to act on behalf of Maori though. I do not mean the mana to act as a unilateral decision maker, but the mana to act as a symbolic leader, a person(s) who can unite Maori on certain issues and drive ideas among Maori.
The battle for the Maori seats is, comparatively speaking, attracting little attention. This is surprising considering the results in the Maori seats will almost certainly determine who forms the next government. If the Maori Party is destroyed the National Party will lose their only stable coalition partner, therefore depriving them of another term in government (assuming Rodney Hide is toast in Epsom and an outright majority is not obtained). The Mana Party will undoubtedly fill the void and a centre left government would be almost guaranteed.
If I were to pick a representative of all Maori, I would pick Hone Harawira. Not because he reflects most Maori, but because he takes his job as a representative seriously. He remembers that his mana is derived from the people and the people can take it back. He speaks passionately and honestly. There is no pretending, nothing fake or forced, Hone speaks for Maori. The others speak, first and foremost, for themselves. They put electoral considerations ahead of what is perhaps right. Been a hopeless idealist, I like the thought of someone with a bit of honesty.