The year in Maori politics begins this week with politicians red, blue and Green descending on Ratana Pa. From Stuff:
The annual battle for political support from a Maori religious group will get under way tomorrow with opponents looking to deepen the divide between Labour and their traditional Ratana ally.
Labour leader David Shearer will make the pilgrimage for the first time since taking over the party reins.
Just before Mr Shearer and his Labour team are welcomed on to the marae tomorrow afternoon, Prime Minister John Key and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples will lead the government delegation on.
Also in the mix will be NZ First leader Winston Peters, Mana leader Hone Harawira and the Green Party's Maori caucus.
National, NZ First and the Greens will gain nothing, zilch, from the Ratana movement. Ratana will never officially desert Labour, so long as Labour remains loosely pro-Maori. Not even the Maori Party could convince the Church to ditch Labour. Maori, or more specifically Ratana followers, have too much respect for history and too much fear for the consequences of dishonouring their ancestor’s traditions to desert Labour.
To be honest, the Church is no longer a significant electoral force. Ratana claims some 60,000 members. This is, in my opinion, an inflated claim. 60,000 may have an association to the Church, but I doubt that there are 60,000 active members. For arguments sake, let’s say the Church is comprised of 60,000 active members. Even then, for the Church to exercise any real influence the leadership must ensure their followers vote in concert. However, Maori – and by extension Ratana followers - no longer vote in a bloc. Cultural change has led to growing independence – meaning Maori no longer take the word of their leaders as law. Growing political choice has also ensured that Maori can exercise their independence and take their vote elsewhere – for example the Maori Party. As Maori society becomes more secular Ratana’s influence will continue to diminish. 1996, the year NZ First swept the Maori seats, marked the end of the Ratana Church holding the casting vote in the Maori electorates.
Anyway, the point I want to make is that the Ratana celebrations are nothing more than a photo opportunity for Labour, National, NZ First and the Greens. As I said, the Ratana celebrations mark the beginning of the Maori political year. The celebrations are also the first political event of the year and a good precursor, or warm up event, for Waitangi weekend. Bar some extraordinary event, the traditional welcome for politicians onto the pa usually leads the 6 o’clock news and all of the major papers carry a Ratana piece. In previous years John Key has played the week very well. A quick google of ‘ratana john key’ brings up headlines like “Warm Welcome for John Key and National MPs at Ratana” and “Confident Key points to gains in Speech at Ratana”. If you google ‘ratana phil goff’ the first result reads “PM takes swipe at Hone Harawira” which, as you’d expect, is a story about the Prime Minister at Ratana which only gives brief mention of Phil Goff.
If a politician can do something even remotely newsworthy, they can milk the media for the entire week. John Key has done it each year. One year he planted speculation that Ratana was considering cutting ties with Labour. Another year he used his speech to outline National’s work for Maori. Last year he used the week to launch attacks on Hone Harawira. I wonder if David Shearer, unlike his predecessor, can cook up the same sort of media smarts as John Key and his team.