Could Tāmaki Makaurau decide the next election?

This piece originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline 'In the hot seat'.

You have 12 months left to prepare for the possibility of a Prime Minister Simon Bridges. It’s a terrifying thought — well, for progressives — but it seems increasingly likely the National Party leader is going to push the Labour-led government hard. Last night's 1News Colmar Brunton poll signals National is settling in at 46%*. This is the John Key sweet spot. With an assist from David Seymour’s Act Party, or even Winston Peters’ New Zealand First, the sixth National government could take office in 2020. So long, Jacinda and Clarke, and thanks for all the fish.

But how plausible is that, really? The Prime Minister’s net approval ratings are spectacular, and her government is sitting on a $7.5 billion surplus. If Finance Minister Grant Robertson is in a reformist mood — or, rather, a campaigning mood — he could arrange an election-year lolly scramble, allocating billions more to health, education and housing. Few people would complain (other than Bridges), but even if voters are reluctant to back further government spending, the Labour, New Zealand First and Green parties still enjoy a combined six-seat lead over the Opposition in Parliament. How likely is it National can close the gap?

The trouble with this reading is it obscures how close-run the last election really was. Sure, the Labour-led government commands that lead on the Opposition, but it only governs with a parliamentary majority of three (63 seats in a 120-seat chamber). If you recall the results on election night, the Bill English-led National Party and its Epsom surrogate were only two seats away from securing the numbers to form a government. If the Māori Party had made it back with their two seats, perhaps this column would open with a different hypothetical: you have 12 months to prepare for the possibility of a Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

This is another way of saying the Māori electorates matter. Andrew Little’s former chief of staff, the old-time union strategist Matt McCarten, knew it as early as 2016, deciding on a strategy to target Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell in the Waiariki electorate and United Future’s Peter Dunne in Ōhāriu. Hard heads in Labour understood National’s base (that magic 47%) was more or less immovable, and the key wasn’t necessarily a dramatic swing in the party vote. The best bet in 2017 was taking out the then government’s support partners. It goes without saying, but for the record: it worked.

Māori  Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell. Photo: Getty

Labour ran hard in the Māori electorates. Its Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP, Meka Whaitiri, ripped into Flavell for proposing wholesale changes to Māori land law. His opponent in Waiariki, Labour’s Tamati Coffey, was a door-knocking machine. In an early year set-piece, Little told RNZ the Māori Party wasn’t a “kaupapa Māori party”. The targeting was brutally effective. Coffey took Waiariki with a comfortable majority. The morning after the election, Flavell, in a signal of where his political priorities and loyalties were, told media English “deserved another three years”. In his valedictory speech, the outgoing Prime Minister described Flavell as a “friend” and spoke affectionately about the partnership between their two parties.

But the special votes eventually put the prospect of another National-Act-Māori Party government just out of reach. Flavell’s loss does indicate, though, just how close it came — and just how important the Māori electorates are to the outcome in 2020. Throughout the 20th century there were several elections where the Māori electorates were crucial, including in 1946 and 1957 when Labour’s Māori MPs took them over the line. It’s not implausible to imagine the same in 2020.

But which Māori electorate is crucial to the election outcome? Only one. Auckland’s Tāmaki Makaurau. The government’s dithering over Ihumātao means seat holder and Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare is at risk. Compounding his problems are his government’s spectacular failure to deliver in housing — an acute issue in his electorate — and a vocal campaign against his policies for Whānau Ora. Critics are cornering him with two issue accusations: one, there isn’t enough money; and two, the money that does exist isn’t all going to the existing “commissioning agencies” (who commission Whānau Ora “outcomes”).

This is an unusual position for Labour’s Māori MPs. For the past 10 years, they were the insurgent force in politics, securing big wins against the Māori Party. But they are learning what every government MP eventually finds out: you’re not really running against your opponents, you run against your record. And Labour’s is, well, fine. A partisan might go as far as saying it’s very good, but we’re far from the transformation we were promised in 2017. For Māori voters at the bottom of all the wrong social and economic statistics, this isn’t just a letdown: it’s disillusioning.

Commentators are beginning to sense an upset is possible. There’s blood in the water. Sharks are circling. There are rumours John Tamihere may have a crack. Can he really win it, though, especially off the back of a landslide mayoral loss? I rate his chances. Pākehā know Tamihere, if at all, for “front bums” and his long list of intolerable comments. But Māori know him as the bloke who put their aunty in a home, found a job for their cousin, and played in the backline with their old man. This is why he’s viable, at least in Tāmaki Makaurau.

This piles the pressure on Labour. It’s important, for re-election no less, that Māori in the party are given the greatest control possible over their campaign. Māori must occupy senior positions in the party, giving them the mana to make big decisions and big reforms. And support must go up around Henare. Anything less and the country might get a Prime Minister Simon Bridges.

*The October poll referenced in the print version of this story saw National at 47% and has been updated to run online.

I live in a gang town and Simon Bridges' zero-tolerance approach won’t help one bit

It took me almost 10 years to notice that the green ink snaking across my old man’s forehead said “Mongrel Mob”. I never thought the bulldogs wrapping around his hands meant gang member. I mean, he was a dog lover, and he was Dad.

You never really know your parents’ life before you were born, right, even when it’s written across their bodies. You only know the person who is, your mum or dad in the here and now, and it’s almost impossible to imagine they’re someone other people might fear. This is why it took almost 10 years to figure out that the thing on Dad’s head was the reason people were locking their car doors when our family was walking past.

And in one sense, who can blame them? “Gang member” is a vivid signifier, and to most people it signals all the worst things: crime, violence, and a community gone wrong. Never mind that you’re far more likely to suffer violence at the hands of someone you know than at the hands of a random bloke with a patch.

Stereotypes are hard to shake and overestimating a gang’s impact on people’s lives and communities is one reason the “war on gang” rhetoric is so effective, even if as a policy it fails time after time. In a play to this very overestimate National leader Simon Bridges is promising a police unit to quite literally harass gang members. Its name: “Strike Force Raptor”.

Continue reading at The Guardian…

Only one parliamentary party lacks a Māori leader. Here’s how they fix it

“Parliamentary party leader” is probably the only decent demographic where Māori make up a majority.

I mean, Ngāti Maniapoto’s Simon Bridges leads National. New Zealand First can point to its chief, Ngāti Wai’s Winston Peters, and his little chief, Te Arawa’s Fletcher Tabuteau. Hokianga queen Marama Davidson co-leads the Greens. Even Act’s David Seymour can trace his whakapapa to a Treaty signatory. Labour is literally parliament’s last hold-out. Is that weird that the most popular party among Māori is the only one without a Māori leader?

I struggle to reconcile it. If you knew no New Zealand history, and you could only rely on the values and policies of its current political parties, I suspect most people would pick the pattern running in reverse. Labour leading the race, electing Māori leaders early and often, and National and the others fighting over a second-place finish. Yet the pattern is almost entirely in reverse. The highest ranking rangatira in early New Zealand politics – Sir James Carroll in 1887 and Sir Āpirana Ngata in 1905 – were conservative men in what we’d recognise today as conservative parties. It took Labour decades to catch up with their own ranking man, Eruera Tirikatene, in 1932…

Keep reading at the Spinoff

Against the "Treaty principles"

This essay was originally published at The Spinoff Atea.

I suspect New Zealand is the only country where governments adhere to our founding document’s “principles” and not its text. Americans love their constitutional texts. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. South Africans are rightly proud of their freedom constitution as well. “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”. But in New Zealand keen bureaucrats and politicians eschew the Treaty of Waitangi’s words opting for court-ordered principles like “partnership”, usually meaning we’ll compromise on a minor point in the decision we were always going to make anyway, and “active protection”, usually meaning we’ll consult and make the decision we were always going to make anyway. Article II’s “tino rangatiratanga” and “kāwanatanga” are, quite literally, a foreign language.

Is this too harsh? If anything I think it’s a little too generous. Even the most well-meaning politicians misunderstand what the Treaty is about. “At the heart of Te Tiriti,” Jacinda Ardern wrote at the last election, “are the core values of kotahitanga, manaakitanga, whaakawhanaungatanga, and kaitiakitanga”. I adore the sentiment in this, but I want to reach out from the page and preach. The Treaty isn’t a manifesto for kindness. It’s a constitution, and it does what constitutions do: distributes power. In the Māori language version’s second article the rangatira who sign reaffirm “tino rangatiratanga” for iwi and hapū, retaining the mana to govern the country. In the same article those rangatira use their political powers to carve out a small space, “kāwanatanga”, for the Crown to govern its own subjects.

But the trouble with the Treaty principles, or even vague winks at core values, is it treats this relationship in reverse. Tino rangatiratanga for the Crown. Subordinate power for iwi and hapū. In the Lands case in 1987, the landmark ruling confirming the shape and content of the Treaty principles, Lord Cooke confirms the Crown owes Māori certain obligations and in return Māori undertake “a duty of loyalty to the Queen, full acceptance of her Government through her responsible Ministers, and reasonable co-operation”. But this is the bargain made in the Treaty’s English language version (Māori exchange their “sovereignty” for certain protections) when the rangatira who put their mark to the Treaty did so in the Māori language text.

It’s like signing a contract and your boss holds you to a Google translate version.

It’s no wonder that only a decade before the landmark case activists were condemning the Treaty as a “fraud”. For almost the country’s entire modern life the Treaty was just a good excuse. In the 1860s settler politicians were careful to ensure even their very worst acts, from the legislation enabling land confiscation to the statute suspending habeas corpus, were framed as simply “giving better effect” to the Treaty. Historian Keith Sorrenson notes even the preamble to the Native Land Act 1862, the statute abolishing the Crown’s own Treaty right to pre-emption, claimed its purpose wasn’t to undermine the Treaty but paradoxically, to ensure its better effect.

I think this is what Hone Harawira calls “white man bullshit”.

Against this history the Treaty principles aren’t so bad. Progress, even, and only the worst ideologue would argue otherwise. The principles were responsible for strengthening Waikato-Tainui’s hand in its Treaty settlement negotiations in the 1990s after the Court Appeal found coal rights ought to be treated like land rights. They were also at work in 1990 in the fisheries case, in 1994 in the broadcasting assets case, and in more cases through the late 90s and early 2000s. The principles set the script for the Treaty relationship in the 90s confirming it largely as one of resource allocation. The government would propose a reform, and Māori would negotiate some kind of share.

Deal or no deal for colonisers.

But what’s so astonishing about this consensus is how spectacularly brief it was. In its Ngāti Apa decision in 2003 the Court of Appeal found the Māori Land Court had jurisdiction to determine whether areas of the foreshore and seabed were Māori customary land or not. The decision itself didn’t necessarily turn on the Treaty, instead the court was examining the common law concept of customary title, but it put at risk the government’s emerging approach to Māori and their land and resources. Under the Court of Appeal’s decision whether iwi or hapū held customary title would turn on fact and law and not on political circumstance, as it did in the negotiations for fishing quota and broadcast assets.

For many Pākehā it was their “we shall fight on the beaches” moment. One year after the Court of Appeal’s decision the Labour government took the foreshore and seabed into Crown ownership. Well, except for the parts already in private ownership. Farmers and overseas billionaires were left with their choice parcels of beach and seafront. This is the one constant from the Native Land Act to the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Governments quite like extinguishing Māori property rights. It’s further confirmation, if any were needed, that the Treaty principles are mostly a matter of convenience. The raupatu’s architect, finance minister Michael Cullen, certainly wasn’t bothering himself with ideas of “partnership” or “active protection”.

Post-raupatu the fifth Labour government could never quite recover and restore the détente the Treaty principles were responsible for. Activists hit the streets again and the party lost five of its seven Māori seats in 2008. Tribal leaders were wary of engaging with government as well, even for the purposes of Treaty settlements. Under Helen Clark and Michael Cullen the only big Treaty settlement to make it through was the “Treelords” deal. The other successful settlements were mostly mid-level. It took a National government to kick the settlement process back into gear, and to restore trust between iwi leaders the Crown. It’s a little counterintuitive that the Tories do better with iwi leaders, but the reasons are simple enough.

National are probably just better at business.

In the trade unions, where most of Labour’s best negotiators pick up their craft, your first instinct at an impasse is to escalate. Push. Strike. Or in this case legislate. But across the table, at the bosses’ end where National pick their best, the first instinct is usually to adapt. Co-opt. Screw down. This is how the Treaty principles tend to work. Invite Māori to the negotiating table. Co-opt. Screw down. But Labour governments never quite got the hang of it. In the mid to late 20th century Labour’s preference for working with Māori was through their own Māori caucus, equating their electoral mandate as the mana to act in things Māori. But the principles in the 80s and settlements in the 90s made that approach increasingly untenable. Māori could and were asserting institutional force through their post-settlement rūnanga and constitutional force through the Treaty principles.

This is where National governments were quick to adapt to the principles and post-settlement, establishing strategic accords with groups like the Iwi Leaders Forum. Former prime minister Bill English went as far as describing that relationship as “the most efficient, focused, and accountable process I’ve been part of in government in [my] whole 27 years, and it gives me great optimism”. High praise. And it typifies National’s approach. From the 1950s through 80s the Tories, lacking Labour’s electoral mandate from Māori, would work with Māori (in the few cases that they actually did) through their representative institutions. The Māori Council, the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and select “district” leaders. Most Māori would describe this as a rangatira to rangatira relationship. John Key called it pragmatic.

That description reinforces the best part of the Treaty principles, they work in the system as is, but it also reinforces the worst part. They’re a matter of convenience. In the Lands case it was Lord Cooke’s view that the courts should fashion the principles out of the “spirit” of the Treaty and not its strict text. But that’s like trying to build a house out of thoughts and prayers. It’s not enough. And more and more Māori are beginning to call it out. At Ihumātao the kaitiaki are repurposing the Crown’s own arguments against it: that some iwi with whakapapa to the land already have their settlements isn’t an excuse to do nothing; instead it’s a confirmation that settlements are insufficient.

SOUL itself is an exercise in rangatiratanga, as per the Treaty’s words, and not partnership, as per its principles. The movement on the land is taking Article II enacting it. Of course the Crown’s response to that is perfunctory. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, refusing to rule in or rule out purchasing the land, says she’s “mindful” of the government’s “obligations” including “around the Treaty of Waitangi”. It’s the answer you give when you don’t really want to give one. But the government, or rather the Crown, cannot ignore the signs. The Ngāpuhi Treaty settlements is almost at a dead end, its iwi members refusing to contort their hapū into the large natural groupings policy. Whakatōhea is split too, half the iwi calling for a historical report knowing that taking a seat at the negotiating table without one is a like taking a spoon to a shootout.

But the defining issue, I think, when historians re-examine the period is the child welfare agency. The Crown’s cruelty is never more manifest than when Oranga Tamariki rips Māori babies from their mothers. The act is ruinous, and it exposes the Treaty principles as empty in the lives of the thousands of Māori who were taken over the decades. The moral imperative is enough to force the Crown to rethink its structures and policies, but what’s significant is how iwi and hapū are responding. As one example Ngāti Kahungungu are allocating resources and developing the infrastructure they need to do Oranga Tamariki’s job themselves. This isn’t partnership. Like at Ihumātao, it’s rangatiratanga.

This functions as a general reminder and, in this case, a particular one: the women were right. In the 1990s activists and MPs like Annette Sykes and Mana Motuhake leader Sandra Lee were vocal critics of Treaty principles and its attendant Treaty settlements. Settlements were, said rangatira like Lee, insufficient. Worse, they could risk letting the Crown off the hook. Ihumātao proves the insufficiency criticism right. And two decades later another generation of activist women aren’t letting the Crown off the hook. If someone rewrites this polemic in 2029 they should open it with “Pania Newton was right”.

They travel with shadows: what I learned interviewing former Māori politicians

After almost 10 years in and around media and politics, I’m not sure that I could ever encourage anyone to become an MP.

Yeah, the status is no doubt appealing, and using that mana to help people in need is an objective good. The money seems nice, too. But the work is punishing and, more often than not, thankless.

I was an intern for the late Parekura Horomia in 2011, when he’d usually work 14-hour days. He’d fly out of Wellington one morning and drive back in the same evening, somehow having made it to a tangi on the Coast, met with a CEO in Napier, caught the second half of a club rugby game in Wainuiomata, and still made it back in time for “House duty” in parliament that night.

I mean, if you’re a machine, or if you can maintain the energy and commitment of a rangatira like Parekura, go for it. Stand for parliament. But do it knowing that the place — Wellington, and the institution of parliament — can either break you or make you.

This is one of the grim lessons I took from Matangireia, the new RNZ series which I host, and which Annabelle Lee-Mather and Mihingarangi Forbes produced. In our conversations with six former Māori politicians, each had their story about just how dark life as an MP can be.

When Dame Tariana Turia made the decision to cross the floor over the foreshore and seabed, few of her former colleagues ever spoke to her again. John Tamihere, the former Labour MP, who admits his mistake in voting for the raupatu, was one of the few to simply ask: “How are you?”

The rest of them, apart from a caring one or two, never said a word.

The remarkable thing, though, is how thoroughly Tariana won in the endSeven years after crossing the floor, she and her colleagues in the Māori Party took the Foreshore and Seabed Act off the books. Her signature programme, Whānau Ora, is at the heart of social policy in New Zealand, and many of her former colleagues in Labour are champions for it — Waipareira Trust chief John Tamihere especially.

The same is true for all the politicians we spoke to for Matangireia. One way or another, they won. And, more often than not, they won despite their parliamentary colleagues.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern cut Metiria Turei loose at the last election after “that” welfare speech, which forced the then Green co-leader to resign her position. But even out of parliament, it’s the issues that Metiria championed — from child poverty to cannabis decriminalisation — which are driving this government’s reform programme.

That’s a legacy, right?

This was part of the thinking behind Matangireia. We were keen to know what kind of legacies our politicians left.

Sandra Lee, the first Māori woman to win a general electorate seat, and, just as importantly, the first person to ever lead a kaupapa Māori party to parliament, broke two glass ceilings, and made it possible for every wāhine Māori who follows. How did she feel about that legacy?

Tau Henare made it in the same year as Sandra — 1993, the last first-past-the-post election — and three years later, he and his colleagues did what no one else had done in more than half a century: they won all the Māori seats off Labour.

Tuariki Delamere was part of that history-making group, and he became the immigration minister in the National-New Zealand First government. This made the Coastie the first Māori to control the borders since, well, 1840.

Now, I’ll admit that I live for this sort of thing, and I was counting down the days until filming. But, at the same time, the thought of interviewing the big six was terrifying. As a writer, I’ve written some critical pieces over the years. A good deal of them about the very politicians we were interviewing.

Marama Fox and the Māori Party, for example. She’s going to destroy me, I thought, as I prepared to meet her. And sure enough, after we took our seats for her interview, she told me: “I used to hate the things you wrote.”

I’m done, I thought. Psyched-out in record time. Then she added: “I liked you” — phew! — “but you just don’t get it.” What “it” was, I wasn’t quite sure. I didn’t get the politics? The personalities?

After an hour talking back and forth, it became obvious what the “it” was. I never properly understood the personal pressures on politicians. Parliament squeezes you. Sometimes to the point where there’s nothing left. It keeps you from your family and your community, as it did to Marama Fox. As co-leader, she’d travel the country for days on end, sorting constituency issues and policy problems, and more.

And if parliament doesn’t do a number on you, the media often will. Sometimes for nothing more than saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. For some journalists, this was Metiria Turei’s real crime in that career-ending 2017 speech, when she made the admission that she had to game the welfare system to feed her whānau.

The savvy thing to do would have been to never admit it at all.

Metiria’s welfare speech put a bomb under the last election. The Greens were riding high in the first poll after the speech — 15 percent! — forcing Labour leader Andrew Little to step down and deputy leader Jacinda Ardern to step up. The rest, as we know, is history.

Before filming, I was itching to ask: “Do you regret it?” But, on the day of the interview, I thought this was a garish thing to go after. We’re not here for an “angle” or a “scoop” on the speech and its fallout. This is Metiria Turei’s legacy interview. We went back and forth. Her early life. Her career. Her politics and ideology. And her legacy?

“I was brave,” she said. “I took a big risk. It did come at a cost . . . it was the cost of my job.”

I was a Metiria Turei supporter before all of this. I’m a Metiria worshipper now. It takes someone extraordinary to put principle before her own career. And, in their own ways, all the politicians we spoke with for Matangireia did just that.

Tau Henare put a public backlash to one side to ensure mokomokai and kōiwi made it out of foreign museums and back home, flying “first class”. It didn’t win him any new conservative supporters. But it didn’t have to. It was enough that it was the right thing to do.

Sandra Lee put a stop to logging native timber on the West Coast. There were whispers about the wisdom of that decision in her own government. But did it matter? No. It was just the tika thing to do.

One thing you might not know about Māori politicians is that they travel with shadows. Their tūpuna inhabit every room they enter, they embody every act, and they help guide every word. This is especially so in Matangireia, the Māori Affairs select committee room. Nominally, each interview is a dialogue between the politician as interviewee and me as interviewer. But that’s not quite it. In its entirety, Matangireia is a dialogue between the past and present. It’s a conversation between, and with, the many ancestors in that room.

One striking thing about the series as a whole is how the late Matiu Rata, whose portrait keeps watch over the room, made his presence felt in every interview. Sandra spoke about his influence in her life. Marama spoke about how he helped politicise her. Tau told the story about sounding out the great man before he ran for parliament. Tariana spoke about how the former Mana Motuhake leader was an inspiration to all independent Māori movements.

This, I think, is at the heart of what Matangireia is. A gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, reminder that we’re not alone, we all carry responsibilities to one another, and what we do in life is simply build on the past.

Loading more posts…