Jun 8, 2014

The Meaning of the Internet Mana Party

Hone Harawira

When you think of the Māori electorates, what comes to mind? For some the Māori electorates are a hangover - part of a legacy of failed hand outs to a feckless and troublesome people. For others the Māori electorates are a necessary evil – a hand up to a people never quite capable of pulling themselves up, a sop to a people stuck in their self-defeating ways.

I’m not writing to announce that I know The Meaning of the Māori electorates. There can be no such thing as The Meaning, rather there are many meanings. It’s true that the Māori electorates represent the “last vestige of a lost autonomy”. The electorates exist to protect mana motuhake. Yet it’s equally true that the electorates represent a counterrevolutionary force. It might be said that they exist to contain mana motuhake. On the one hand, the Māori electorates mean that we have a small role in the distribution of public power and that protects our autonomy, but on the other hand it means that we must submit ourselves to Pākehā norms and institutions and that’s a limit on our autonomy.

But what do the electorates mean to Hone Harawira and his Mana Party? There’s a saying that goes “he kai kei aku ringa” - there is food at the end of my hands. This isn’t a statement, but an instruction to seize an opportunity. For Hone Harawira and the Mana Party, the Māori electorates represent an opportunity. On their view it doesn’t matter whether the electorates are benevolent or malevolent. They are a means to an end. That end is “getting rid of National”.

Thus it’s odd to see a handful of Labour MPs deriding the Internet Mana Party as a “dirty deal”. That argument didn't apply to Labour's concession to Jim Anderton in Wigram. It’s even weirder to see some commentators arguing that the deal corrupts the Māori electorates. They seem to have substituted analysis for catharsis. It’s easy to fall back on partisan hackery or didactic moralising, but neither does anything to capture the complexity of the situation.

Kim Dotcom

Governments change, but poverty is a constant in the Māori electorates. Hone represents the people in his electorate – the permanent poor - but he’s also charged with another duty: to improve their lives. If the opportunity exists, why would anyone expect him to conform to other people’s standards and reject an electoral alliance? Why would Hone remain content with actual poverty and a poverty of electoral opportunity? As Tim Selwyn notes, coat tailing is an imperfect rule, but MMP is about “making as many votes count toward representation as possible”.

Sure, the deal is an act of desperation. But that isn’t a bad thing. You would be desperate too if you were on the wrong end of 174 years of inequality. The Mana Party is taking its desperation and, as a matter of fact, committing an act of deep conformism. The coat tails rule is well exploited. Mana isn’t going against the grain but seeking the safety of convention. Yet the spectacle of an independent Māori party – with socialist leanings and, oddly, moneyed support – seems to invoke the latent paternalism of parts of the left. Right wing resistance is a given, but the cries of dirty deal and sell out from the parts of the left resemble many of the attacks against the Māori Party when they made a pragmatic decision to support the National government. The same desperation was at play in the Māori Party at the time. They could remain on the margins and sit content with actual poverty and a poverty of electoral opportunity or they could have a crack at reversing 174 years of inequality. They used the opportunity their Māori electorates had provided and accepted a deal with National.

They did as many Māori advocates always have - submitted to institutional norms for practical change. Mana could hold true to its radical principles – as Sue Bradford did and all power to her – but that would underestimate the desperation in Māori communities. The Māori Party knew it (although they have been punished for the lack of change) and Mana knows it.

Which brings us back to the meanings of the Māori electorates. Mana – like the Māori Party and even the Young Māori Party before it – wants to become a fact in the distribution of public power. The corollary – as the experience of the Māori Party and even the Young Māori Party before it – is that Mana must cosy up with establishment powers and sacrifice some autonomy. But didn’t someone say politics is the art of compromise? Desperate people sometimes do desperate things. Or, in this case, desperate people can do conventional things too.

I wrote this post about a week ago, but didn't publish it because I've been here and there over where I stand. I'm still not entirely sure where I stand. Sometime next week I'm aiming to post an essay on where Māori politics stands and why.  For similar (better) perspectives it’s worth checking out Labour MP Louisa Wall’s post at the Daily Blog - the hypocrisy of attacking Maori seats for being tactical – and Scott Hamilton’s post at Reading the Maps - From Olaf Nelson to Kim Dotcom