Aug 30, 2013

History: the Shane Jones edition

Sir Michael Joseph Savage, father of the Labour-Maori alliance

In 1932 Eruera Tirikatene won the byelection for Southern Maori. Tirikatene became the Ratana movement’s first MP. In 1935 Haami Tokoru Ratana secured Western Maori – the movement’s second seat. When Tirikatene took office the movement instructed him – and later Haami Tokoru Ratana – to vote with Labour. Recognising the electoral potential, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage and Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana (the movement's founder) met in 1936 and established the Ratana-Labour alliance.

In an effort to sanctify the relationship, TW Ratana presented Savage with five symbolic gifts:

  1. Three huia feathers. The feathers represented Maori. The huia is extinct – killed by introduced species and habitat loss – and its death represented the struggle of the past century.
  2. A pounamu hei tiki. The pounamu represented mana Maori. 
  3. A kumara (or potato depending on the source). The kumara represented the land taken from Maori (i.e. the loss of the Maori sustenance base) and ongoing poverty. 
  4. A broken gold watch. The watch represented the broken promises of the Crown including the broken promise of the Treaty. 
  5. And a badge shaped as a whetu marama (crescent moon). The crescent moon represents te tohu o te Maramatanga – a sign of enlightenment. 

If Savage could restore the mana of the Maori people (the pounamu), eliminate Maori poverty (the kumara) and rectify the broken promises of the Crown (the broken watch) then he would earn the right to wear the three huia feathers. The gifts had an enormous impact on Savage. It’s said that before he died he left instructions to have the gifts buried with him. Cynics say that Labour's commitment to Maori was buried with Savage and the gifts.

I don't believe that. Well, not entirely. Maori have a 77 year relationship with Labour. But despite the depth and symbolism of that relationship, it's been one-sided. Maori voters awarded Labour with a 50 year monopoly in the Maori seats. In 2011 Labour won more than 40% of the party vote in the Maori seats and more than 50% in previous elections. But that loyalty has often been sacrificed to expediency.

How Shane Jones is treated when he (inevitably) loses the leadership race will determine the health of the Labour-Maori alliance (it's no longer a Labour-Ratana alliance). Maori are watching closely. 

It's argued that right wing governments have helped Maori to climb the greasy pole better than their Labour counterparts. Sir James Carroll was a deputy Prime Minister and Acting Prime Minister in the Liberal government in 1909 and 1911. The Liberal Party was a precursor to the National Party. In 1996 Winston Peters secured the deputy Prime Ministership in a National government. There's also Ngata and more recently Parata, Bennett, Bridges and so on. A similar tradition of Maori leaders is harder to find in the Labour Party. 

But Labour has done more for Maori as a people, apparently. I take that view as correct. It was Norman Kirk who appointed Matiu Rata Minister of Maori Affairs - the first Maori to hold the position since Ngata - and the third Labour government that created the Waitangi Tribunal and the fourth Labour government that empowered the tribunal to investigate historical claims. The establishment of the tribunal and the Treaty settlement process has done more to influence Maori development than, say, Winston Peters holding the deputy prime ministership ever did. 

But symbolism can't be ignored. There's historical context. If Labour continues to refuse to put Maori in positions of power and leadership, the perception will strengthen that Labour treats Maori as vote fodder. With the Maori Party to the right and Mana and the Greens to the left, Labour is in danger of destroying the Maori-Labour alliance. There's choice in the Maori seats now. Labour can't rely on being the best of a bad lot. 

So here's the call: there's no need to elect Shane Jones to reaffirm the Labour-Maori alliance. David Cunliffe seems to have some mandate from members of the Maori caucus and he has made noises around the importance of winning a mandate from tangata whenua. But if Shane Jones isn't given a leadership position after the race - top 5 or better top 3 - then Labour can expect another decrease in its vote in the Maori seats. And who could blame us. It's sometimes a one-sided relationship. 

Post-script: here's an earlier post I did on Shane's run. And again for transparency: I've already declared for DC, but I want to keep putting context to Shane's run. He might be sexist, but his run represents far more than an egomaniacal sexist running for the sake of his own perception of self importance. 


  1. I often get annoyed that Peter Fraser's contribution to Māori (and the country) is often overlooked. This isn't a criticism of your post, which is excellent by the way, but just something that I have noticed in general. We often glorify Savage; including myself as I have his portrait on my wall. But it was Fraser who actually did the most to set up the welfare state.

    I didn't know much about his premiership myself until I read his biography 'Tomorrow Comes the Song' by Michael Bassett. Bassett makes the argument, and I think (I need to check the stats again) I agree with him, that Fraser did more for Māori social development than any other Prime Minister. This is because Fraser, while a minister in Savage's Government and during his own premiership, build the foundations of our modern education and health systems. He delivered free health and education as a fundamental right of citizenship. He certainly did more for Māori than Savage, who's leadership was more of a symbolic thing.

    Fraser wasn't loved among the general population like Savage was, but Māori had a huge affinity for he and his wife Janet. Fraser himself had great empathy with te iwi Māori's situation as his ancestors had been cleared off their land by the English in the Highland Clearances.

    He had many negatives as well including disgraceful conscription policies and compulsory military training in peacetime.

    Anyway I think the point I'm trying to make is that I agree with you that Labour's commitment to Māori wasn't buried with Savage. But it probably was buried with the eventual defeat of the First Labour Government and Fraser's death in 1949.

    In my view Fraser was the greatest Prime Minister we have ever had, and by a significant margin.

    1. That's interesting and I agree to a large extent. I recently read Chris Trotter's No Left Turn and he highlights some of the less savoury aspects of Fraser tenure. But as you say, he did significant work to improve the lot of Maori.

      I think Norman Kirk made symbolic steps to reaffirm Labour's commitment to tangata whenua. The photograph of Kirk walking hand in hand with a young Maori boy is one of the most powerful images of the 1970s. Kirk's government also introduced the Waitangi Tribunal Act (as I mentioned) and took steps to reform archaic and unjust Maori land laws. Those laws still remained unjust - hell, they're still unjust today - but it was important reform and reduced some of the unfairness.

      Important measures were also implemented under Geoffrey Palmer and also the fifth Labour government, but they arguably revealed their true attitude towards Maori when the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 was passed. Who can forget "haters and wreckers". Labour's attitude towards Maori can be odd. I think much of it depends on the personalities in charge and their attitude to Maori. Clark never distinguished herself as particularly interested in Maori. Jones obviously is and so too are Cunliffe (with strong Maori caucus support) and Robertson (I think).

    2. Yes that's very true, I did mean to exempt Norman Kirk because I agree he did a lot for Māori and the Waitangi Tribunal was obviously huge. It's so tragic that he died so young and wasn't able to contribute more. You have also reminded me to finish reading No Left Turn. I got half way through about a year ago and then got distracted. From what I remember of it, it was very well written.

      I completely agree that it has been down to personality when it comes to Labour Prime Ministers and their Government's attitude to Māori. Probably with the exception of David Lange who had a huge heart but was so incompetent at leadership that Douglas ran the show.

      I also agree that all three of the current leadership candidates will have a commitment to Māori that Helen Clark didn't. Cunliffe has demonstrated this. Jones doesn't need to. I think Grant is probably just as committed as Cunliffe but he needs to show this over the next few weeks.

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  3. You underestimate how much women in Labour of all ethnic groups are disgusted with Shane Jones right now. Putting him in the top three, even the top five, would be a slap in the face to women who believe in Labour values. It would also go against the activist push for a more left-wing party.

    Jones knows that party membership are pissed off at him, and he knows that most of his own Maori caucus (all women except for Rino Tirakatene) are sick of him. His run for the leadership is to boost his public profile so either Robertson or Cunliffe are compelled to put him in the senior leadership team instead of one of his more respected Maori colleagues. Nanaia Mahuta would be a far better choice, and Meka Whaitiri once she's got used to Parliament.

    But no, Jones thinks he's entitled. And with blogs like this representing him as the bridge between Labour and Maori, and a race where women's voices are cut out, there's a chance he'll get what he wants.

    1. Yes, I agree that if Shane is given a top position then that will offend many in the activist base and many women in the party. But that ignores that issues that have been triggered - the issues that run beyond Labour. This is a test case: where do Maori stand in Labour, the left and mainstream politics?

      In reality, Shane is the only Maori MP in Labour who can run for a top position at the moment. Nanaia - according to Cunliffe - has a young child she's caring for and is not seeking a leadership position because of those responsibilities. Meka - way, way too early. She didn't distinguish herself as overly articulate in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection. She has time on her side, though. Of the other Maori MPs, Louisa stands out and Moana Mackey is coming into her own. But they are not ready for leadership positions.

      I'm glad there is a Maori running for the leadership (even though I'm strongly in favour of Cunliffe). The symbolism is important.

    2. Given that Louisa basically single handedly organised the passing of a major, controversial piece of legislation, I'd really wonder what more she has to do before she's considered ready for leadership.

    3. Single handedly? No. She had huge support from her colleagues - within Labour and across the aisle (most significantly Kevin Hague) - and the time was right. The public was in favour and the left fell in behind her in a way that we haven't seen in years. There's no way that marriage equality was an individual effort. (Not to take away from her big efforts, but let's not pretend it was a solo job).

  4. I agree with MekaFan. Shane Jones is not a good candidate for Labour leader. Too divisive. Should his whakapapa make a difference for the Labour faithful? Hard to say when the man ban issue suggests meritocracy could be on the outer while some form of quota system could be finding favour.

    Whatever the case I do think the female Labour Maori MPs are much stronger than their male counterparts. Hopefully the future might see Meka Whaitiri, Louisa Wall and Nanaia Mahuta securing senior roles in Labour's leadership.

    Manaia C

  5. Kia ora Morgan. Good post, just like to discuss the idea that Labour has been better for Maori than conservative governments, as the received wisdom seems to suggest. In terms of post-war Maori policy the Hunn report (cementing urban assimilation) was written under Labour and released by National, and it could be argued this was the apex of post-war paternalistic Government policy regarding Maori (including Fraser). In terms of the Waitangi Tribunal, National has settled more claims than Labour, and their policies in this area are hard to differentiate. In terms of economics again there seems to be little difference post 1984 (Rogernomics was Labour after all) and a neo-liberal consensus.
    So I’m not entirely sure the old left-right dichotomy works like it used to, and neither Shane nor the Maori Party can be pigeonholed quite so easily, and the Labour-Maori alliance should be examined more closely.

  6. Kia ora Rev,

    I think the Hunn report exposed government paternalism, but it initiated a policy shift. A shift from assimilation to integration. (However, arguably they're both one in the same).

    But in general terms, I think Maori have been better off under Labour government's. Under the last Labour government the Maori unemployment rate was lower than under the current National government. In 2008 the median income for Maori was around 95% of the national median income but in 2013 the Maori median income fall to 85% of the national median income. Maori (real) incomes are falling and (real) incomes for the rest of the country are rising.

    Of course there's the fourth Labour government which did terrible damage to Maori. But I see that government as an aberration. The neoliberal agenda they unleashed is a right wing agenda and it was solidified and made more vicious under Richardson.

  7. Saw the candidates on 3rd Degree this AM. I thought they were all good but felt Cunliffe probably edged it over the other two. Early days yet but seems like Cunliffe would be the best choice as leader with possibly Robertson as deputy. But I reckon Jones could quite easily take on the role of 'bulldog' like Mallard in the Clark government, Brownlee in the current government etc.

    Every successful government needs a bulldog to be the pinch-hitter in the House and through the media. Birch and Williamson did a good job for the Nats in the 1990s. Shane Jones could do an equally good fist of it now. He's got all the quips, arrogance and posturing to produce quality soundbites.

    Manaia C

  8. Kia ora Mr Godfrey.

    In terms of the relative decline of Maori median income and the rise of unemployment, it's important to remember the financial collapse (for whatever reasons) at the start of National's term which had large flow on effects in the NZ economy.

    In fact I think it's important to question why Maori suffered so severely in this. Maybe if Labour had worked harder at 'closing the gaps' during their years of relative boom then Maori wouldn't have been so vulnerable.

    Instead we had what seemed to be middle-class-pander policies like the In Work Tax Credit which disadvantaged beneficiaries and left many Maori whanau on the breadline where building capacity was difficult/impossible. And the decrease in performance of Maori boys under NCEA goes back to the time before National and will be a huge factor in the future of Maoridom as a whole.

    I just think it's important to test the 'instinct' that the current political left is in fact more beneficial to the poor and marginalised of society including, of course, many Maori.



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