Apr 23, 2014

Shane Jones: the political obituary

I know Shane Jones. I like Shane Jones. I don’t want to seem like a sycophant, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I admired him. I disagreed with much of what he said, sure, but I recognised a commanding Maori leader.

Here was a man – and I’m deliberately using gendered language, but more on that later – who understood the Maori experience and the Maori condition: our idiosyncrasies, language, literature, history, philosophies, spiritualism and our politics.

And that’s what set Jones apart. In that respect, he was above the Maori leaders of his generation. He was the successor to Ngata’s legacy. It’s probably because he was a student of James Carroll. Both men appreciated that Maori society is always adapting tradition to modernity. Carroll took that to mean integration into and imitation of British political institutions. Jones took that to mean integration into and imitation of Anglo-American capitalism.

It’s said that Maori walk backwards into the future. History is closer. Jones knew this better than many. I think it’s what influenced his political thinking and practice. It’s the reason he favoured integration on Maori terms – he was drawing on the wisdom of experience, as he saw it – and the reason he valued oratory. He traced his political descent down the same line as Carroll, Ngata, Couch and Peters. Shane was a model of these Maori men. He drew on their strengths, but he also inherited their weaknesses.

Shane inherited the prejudices of the likes of Carroll, Ngata, Couch and Peters. These were conservative men who didn’t care as much for other marginalised groups. Take Apirana Ngata. He was an Anglo-patrician who believed in a racial hierarchy. Although he committed his entire being to Maori, he was not open-minded on today’s standards. I’m not saying Jones’ believes in racial hierarchy, but that he inherited blindspots from his predecessors.

It’s those blindspots that make Shane a social democrat, but not a liberal. That was a cause of tension, stress and confusion on the left. Labour was always his default home, but I don’t think it was ever his proper home. Shane was socialised into politics off the back of, for lack of a better term, the old left. His introduction to Parliament and the Beehive was while working for Geoffrey Palmer in the fourth Labour government. He would've been a better fit - ideologically - in the Maori Party. He might've had a more successful career in National.

This meant he was neither perfect for Maori nor perfect for the left. (But perfection is a false chalice, yet that didn’t stop many from demanding it). The attacks against women were uncalled for and wrong. The struggle for gender equality shouldn't and can't be divorced from the struggle for ethnic equality. Equality works best when it's equality for the whole and not the parts.

I think many of Shane’s Maori supporters were always willing to recognise that. Yet his opponents rarely acknowledged his significance for Maori and in Maori political history. His place in Maori politics and Maori history was ignored. That was a telling signal to Maori - a people who revere the past and always try to fit their thinking in it. Shane worked because he understood this. He knew what made Maori tick, though it was always undermined by the faults of his political line.

But what was worse – and very neo-colonialist – was being told to wait for someone better. That moment had too much in common with when the radical left realised tino rangatiratanga meant ownership and then Maori suddenly became the new bourgeois. I’ve said it before: Maori politics doesn’t sit apart from the political spectrum, but below it. At least the political right doesn't pretend to be a false friend.

Maori political history isn't rich with choice. Telling us to wait for a more "progressive" candidate is deeply offensive. Maori have waited too long for too little. Shane was an opportunity and one many - including myself - were willing to back. He wasn’t perfect, but he was as close as we’ve come in more than a decade to the centre of power. Winston was the last Maori politician to come close to real power. It’s been a century since Maori actually touched it (Carroll as acting prime minister). Forgive us for working with what we have.

Shane was always good to me. I don’t base my politics on how well politicians treat me, but I believe he was a good man with honest intentions. That’s more than I can say for a lot of politicians I’ve met. I wish Shane all the best. But I’m mourning what he represented and what appears to be, for now, a loss of meaning in Maori politics. Who carries the tohu of the likes of Carroll now? Is that political line broken? After all, Parekura has gone. Tariana is leaving. But who is coming through?    


  1. Willow Jean Prime.

  2. Actually, on that note, here are my picks for upcoming Maori politicians, who I think have the potential to rise to some commanding positions in the next 3 terms: Willow Jean Prime, Ngarimu Blair, Julian Wilcox, Gina Rangi (if she chooses to enter politics). Here's what I can't work out - where the likes of these individuals fit political party wise. They are all young, articulate and rooted in both te ao Maori, and te ao Pakeha. They are tech, media, local government, central government, and business savvy. They also all have spunk. Shane is leaving, and I agree, it's a loss for this era of politics. But ka pu te ruha, ka hao nga rangatahi.

    These aforementioned people don't fit the Labour / Mana / Greens leftism because they are all rooted enough in iwi politics to know that the left can't, as much as they want to, deliver for contemporary Maori and be okay with benevolent forms of autonomism. The Maori Party should have recruited, and groomed the likes of these guys. But, the Maori Party is over and that's due to their beginnings - they didn't take the time at the outset to form a cohesive political ideology. Being Maori just wasn't unifying enough as evidenced by Hone's exit in the honeymoon stage (notably, this is what I think the Greens done superbly well at the outset, worked on their political ideology, stayed out of government and build a grass roots movement). In summary, I think that there is a huge gap in Maori politics right now and the time is ripe for a new wave of political movers and shakers to step into the limelight. I will miss Shane for they way he carried the oratory artform of our tupuna, and the way he commanded attention from all sides of the political spectrum. But I'm ready to see how will step up and step in.

    1. Tautoko that. This is a loss, but also an exciting opportunity.

    2. I suspect I too would've liked Shane Jones if I'd met him, though I certainly disagreed with many of his comments - his dissing Greenpeace for their concerns over 'some obscure ecosystem' (i.e. offshore fisheries) just one of many ignorant positions not unknown among other Harvard graduates.

      As for a new cohort of Maori leaders, I too wonder how they will fit into Aotearoa/NZ's political party system. Iwi politics is becoming little more than corporate positioning, justified as any corporate justifies 'returns to shareholders'. And I don't think we have a 'left' in this country, if we take 'left' as representing labour (small 'l') and the right representing (very well I must say) capital.

  3. Morgan, this is the first time I've read your column but it certainly won't be the last. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I don't agree with all your views but found them very informative. This is much more thought provoking and balanced than most of the comment and reader responses in publications like the Herald. Unfortunately most peoples opinions are coloured by their political views so we get very 'black and white' responses of the National all good, everything Labour bad or vice-versa variety. For some of us life and politics is very complex and nuanced.
    I particularly liked your comment about perfection being a false chalice and your ability to articulate the positives and flaws of Shane Jones. In that he is no different to all of us. Whilst I have a number of issues close to my heart, such as social justice (which means different things to different people), what concerns me most about this country is not issues such as unemployment, health, education etc (important as they are) but that we've lost the ability to laugh at ourselves and to debate issues strongly but respectfully. The bulk of political discourse these days has replaced reason with denigration. Your column gives me hope that there are still beacons of reason out there. Thanks.

  4. There are some talented strong Maori women in Parliament [and I do not include Tariana here]
    I think that it is a case for move with the times !

  5. Winston was deputy PM for a while and therefore would have been acting PM on several occasions, so he did at least as well as Carroll. Given that neither of them focussed their careers primarily on 'Maori' issues, or represented Maori seats, I'm wondering how possible it is for a Maori politician to gain 'real power' and still remain committed to Maori.

  6. Norman Kirk - first Maori PM - although that was carefully ignored by the MSM and others then and continues to be ignored now.



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