Nov 1, 2013

The real impediment to a Mana-Maori merger (and it's not National)

Mana Party President and tino rangatiratanga advocate Annette Sykes

Claire Trevett reports:

The Maori Party and the Mana Party have reached a truce of sorts after a meeting between the parties' hierarchy last night. 

Mana President Annette Sykes met the Maori Party's co-vice president Ken Mair last night and the two parties agreed to work framework setting out areas of policy on which they would work together. That is due to be launched in early 2014 and it likely to include areas such as Maori unemployment, poor housing, and child poverty.

Yesterday I ran through the archives of this blog. I was disappointed with the tone (and some of the substance). It was angry. But it was a reflection of Maori politics at the time.

The seeds of tension emerged in 2008. The Maori Party had traveled the country to secure the membership's consent to a supply and confidence arrangement with National. By most accounts, the party leadership won an overwhelming mandate and there was optimism in most circles. But time eroded the consensus. Difficult policy choices started to build. The party misstepped when it supported the ETS and pressure was applied on its MPs to pull their support for Budget 2010 and the GST rise.

Come 2011 the tensions had swelled and the understanding between the Maori Party's radicals and the conservatives – meaning the idea that a Maori political movement is strongest when its united - came crashing down. The rest is history. Hone Harawira broke away with half of the Maori Party and Mana was born. Political parties reap what they sow.

But a relationship accord between Mana and the Maori Party (hopefully) signals that the tide is going out on that conflict. There’s an increasing acceptance that Maori are better off because of the Maori Party’s relationship with National. It hasn't been progress, but the Maori Party has acted as a buffer against decline.

Yet one impediment remains - and it's not necessarily National. The conflict is between Mana and the Maori Party’s conception of politics. Mana is ideological, but the Maori Party acts as post-ideological.

Working "at the table" is the Maori Party's ideology. Party policy is dictated by what can be achieved at the table and what is necessary to remain at the table. There's a pragmatic logic in that, sure, but the consequence is that Maori politics is confined to what's palatable to the ninth floor. There's also an element of circular reasoning when being at the table is both the means and the end.

So if being at the table is the Maori Party's raison d'être then there's little room for Mana - a party that values external change and leftwing ideologies. After all, Hone Harawira threatened the Maori Party's place at the table and he was removed. 

Yet maybe the Maori Party is on the right side of history. The trajectory of Maori politics hasn’t been towards revolution or wholesale structural change. Leaders of the later stages of the Maori renaissance and now the Maori Party, Iwi Leaders and many others prefer integration into New Zealand power structures. The attraction among battle-weary activists and heroes of the movement is clear. But it’s not an approach that attracts Mana. And that’s the real impediment to a merger – not National.


  1. While I would say I have only an amateur understanding of the nuances of Maori politics, it appears to me that there are unreconciliable differences betweeen the Maori and Mana parties, at least as they are currently conceived.

    The Mana Movement purports to represent a wider base than exclusively low-income Maori, best represented by the support of a number of left-wing organisations such as Socialist Aotearoa, International Socialist Organisation, and individuals like John Minto and Sue Bradford (personifying the radical environmentalist element). However a closer relationship with the Maori Party would likely require the jettison (or at least, further marginalisation) of these elements to ensure harmony. Pakeha radicals aligned with the movement are looking for more than the advancement of only Maori issues, and it is difficult to see how this could be achieved with the revitalisation of a 'pan-Maori' movement.

    A question Mana must pose to itself: is it a left-wing Maori Party, or a broader church left-wing movement that has a close, but not exclusive, identification with Maori issues?

    1. I think if the parties were talking about a merger, then the socialist wing of the Mana Party would say au revoir. But I don't think it necessarily follows that a closer relationship with the Maori Party means further marginalisation of the socialist wing. But then again I don't have any inside knowledge so I can only speculate as to how this is playing within the party.

    2. I don't have insider knowledge either, so this is all speculation on my part. However I fear that a move toward reconciliation with the Maori Party will see Mana refocus exclusively on Maori issues. While it is great to see Maori representation in Parliament that isn't beholden to the agenda of the major parties, it would be a shame to see a demise in the synergy of Maori and wider socialist politics that Mana represents (or at least, is attempting to represent).

      The presence of a significant socialist group (that in itself is further speculation, though a bit more of an educated guess) in Mana is the best thing about the movement. Genuine socialism, even of the statist kind that appears dominant in Mana, has been marginalised for too long in this country. Despite arguments (including on this blog) that the Greens are flying the socialist flag, in reality the Mana party is the only (quasi-?) socialist parliamentary party. They are far from perfect, but at least keep the socialist spark alive in a period of intellectual stagnation with regard to meaningful social change. A closer relationship with the traditional, conservative leadership of the Maori Party can only hurt this.

      Of course there is the possibility that I'm following the same old desperate path of socialist radicals, in hoping that fringe, Maori nationalist (or feminist, environmentalist, peace, etc) movements will grow into some grand revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist system. I live in hope.

    3. +1, Peter

      I admit that I am not impressed by the concept of a Mana-Maori accord. It seems to just be a re-re-litigation of the Hone/Turia+Sharples split. If they couldn't work together earlier, they are unlikely to be able to work together now, not when nothing substantial has changed. It's hard not to see this as a product of Mana failing to catch fire at the polls.

    4. Indeed. The idea that these talks are because of the growing power of the Mana Movement, and thus the existential threat it poses to the Maori Party, is misleading. Mana and the Maori Party are talking because both are weak, not because Mana is rising and MP weakening.

      In my opinion (and I'm horribly biased, revolutionary socialist that I am), Mana would do better to spread its wings more into the broader socialist movement, and adopt the language that goes with it. Otherwise it is difficult to see how Mana will develop into anything more than a left-wing Maori Party OR a more Maori-oriented Greens. The point of difference has not been convincingly established, and thus Mana floats in no-mans-land on the far left, relying heavily on the personality politics of Harawira to keep alive their finger-tip hold on Parliament. Parliamentary politics offers very little in genuine social change, but the profile of that position is very useful for the building of a bigger movement.

    5. I think you've nailed it: both parties are weak and that's compelled the "truce" (to use Claire Trevett's language).

      Mana has struggled to convert the initial enthusiasm it attracted into votes. They can run a strong ground game (Ikaroa-Rawhiti showed that), but there isn't a clear intellectual foundation. You're right that there's a danger the party will morph into a left-wing Maori Party. That might have been an inevitability given that the party's power base is in the Maori seats.

      The left is crowded too. The Greens are occupying the eco-socialist spectrum, Labour has a tight lock on social democrats and the socialists are, well, pretty scattered. The target must be the disengaged. But that's easier said than done, of course.

    6. '...there isn't a clear intellectual foundation'

      Absolutely agree with this. I don't mean to say that Mana doesn't have its fair share of thinkers and visionaries, but I don't believe the party has developed and articulated a clear vision of what it stands for, and why this is different from the alternatives (Greens, Maori, Labour, etc). The key theoretical work, which practical political activism rests on and is guided by, has not been done (or at least not advertised).

      I find it hard to view the Greens as 'socialists', though without a doubt some genuine socialists do support them. This support is a forlorn exercise, as the Greens hierarchy are clearly incrementalist social democrats, aiming only to reform capitalism to be more eco-friendly. Those looking for the socialist rose amongst the capitalist shrubbery are more desperate than those old-school Marxists who think the Soviet Union was an enlightened utopia. A common rant perhaps, but as true as ever.

  2. Hey Morgan,

    Disagree with two points.

    I don't know that MANA is coming to the table with the Maori Party because they are weak. Ikaroa-Rawhiti has shown that they're a strong contender in the Maori seats. Remember, they had a weak showing in the previous general election because they had formed too late to receive campaign funding and too late to build a strong on-the-ground campaign. I think MANA is speaking with the Maori Party because they want to explore possibilities for reducing vote-splitting in select seats. I'm not sure that an agreement will be reached though--Annette Sykes came very close to winning Te Ururoa's seat and MANA will be certain to robustly contend the Waiariki seat.

    I also disagree on the statement that the socialist organisations are "scattered". When it comes to larger projects like MANA, Unite union and Occupy, the three main socialist groups (Fightback in Wellington & Chch, Socialist Aotearoa in Auckland and ISO in Dunedin) have shown an incredible ability to work together. They all are working to the same goals of rebuilding workers' organisations which are democratic and able to fight.

    It's off the back of these groups' work that Unite union was formed and continues to function.

    The socialists are weak, but only because they are just beginning to rebuild after some lost decades in the 90s and early 00s. Their role in the union movement remains weak (although growing) and consequently they don't have many mainstream influences.

    1. Thanks for that. Very interesting.

      I still stand behind the claim that Mana is weak. Only less weak than the Maori Party.

      Even with their on the ground efforts in Ikaroa Rawhiti, they came a poor second. John Minto also underperformed in the Auckland mayoralty race. But the true test will be at the 2014 election.

      The fact that they have to come to accommodations to avoid vote splitting demonstrates that they aren't a force that can stand against Labour. Come the 2014 election, that might change. But it'll be an uphill battle with only one MP. In any event, I wish Mana luck.

  3. I agree with your analysis of the different approaches the two parties take, but I do believe that the impediment to a Mana/Maori Party merger is in fact National. That's because when a minor party goes into coalition with National the minor party will be prevented by National from making any gains unless those gains are in accord with National's neo-liberal agenda, are so insignificant that it will not impede National's neo-liberal agenda, or if there's some other political imperative that will advantage National's hold on power hence further its neo-liberal agenda. Any other analysis must say that regardless of how widespread and successful and meaningful gains made by the Maori Party while in coalition with National might have been, Hone would have split off from the Maori Party anyway. I don't think that he would have. He's too pragmatic and smart for that. I believe he left because Maori were being sold out under the agreement, plain and simple. If this is the case, then it follows that National are in fact the impediment to Mana/Maori Party merger.

  4. Mana's weakness is essentially of the same kind as the Maori Party's weakness: both parties operate entirely within the framework of bourgeois electoral politics, and both lack an agreed political programme for which they fight. It's not enough to say 'We're for Maori' or 'We're for the working class' or 'We're socialists'. You need to have both a programme and a strategy that doesn't take winning seats in parliament as its be-all and end-all. Both parties are reluctant to face this for fear of alienating some elements within their loose 'For Maori' or 'For the working class' coalitions. So they carry on, limiting their agitation to a few very basic policies that are calculated to fit the electoral framework and not alienate anyone, and as soon as they are faced with an important decision, split down the middle.



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