Kaupapa Māori politics, and why it matters

In this piece, Part II in an analysis of the Māori Party, Morgan Godfery takes a closer look at “kaupapa Māori politics”.

Part I is available here.


One of Matt McCarten’s best bits of media advice is this: answer your phone. It’s exquisitely simple, and absolutely true. In politics, most stories are reactive, and the media come looking for you. “Māori Party slam cuts to Te Puni Kōkiri”. “Māori Party welcome Whānau Ora funding boost”. The only resources you’ll ever need are a working phone and mates who are keen to share your number around. If you’re especially good you can help shape how people understand events, policy problems, or political positions. Marama Fox’s “red undies, blue undies, same skid marks” is still the best values statement ever made.

The problem for the Māori Party, though, is there’s no one to answer the phone. Like literally. Te Ururoa Flavell is captaining the Te Wānanga o Aotearoa waka – though I’m told some supporters are asking him to give the next election another crack – and Marama Fox is keeping a low profile after a business bust (she, too, could make a comeback, but only after public contrition). If the party is going to have any chance in 2020 this is the first fix. Elect new co-leaders, whether it’s the former co-leaders or up and comers like Rawiri Waititi.   

But “fix” might be going a little too far. As with the maybe-we-will-maybe-we-won’t collaboration with TOP, electing co-leaders to answer the phone, drive the country on Marae duties, and run an election campaign isn’t an answer to the party’s ideological lack. This isn’t to say hold back on electing your co-leaders – do it, and soon – instead it’s to argue that the co-leaders must have somewhere to speak from first.  

In the last decade or so that somewhere has been “kaupapa Māori politics”, a kind of intuitive and subjective catch-all for politics for Māori, by Māori. But what is it? For Andrew Little, it’s what the Māori Party aren’t. For Hone Harawira, it’s what the Labour Party aren’t. For the Māori Party, it’s what they are. This in itself is telling. The term is better used as a rhetorical weapon than as an ideological claim because, for most people, it’s contentless. “Kaupapa Māori politics” means whatever your priors tell you it means.

This is why giving the term content is an existential issue for the Māori Party. If you’re “neither left nor right”, as former party leaders would claim, what are you? Well, Māori, and in particular kaupapa Māori. The trouble is the “neither left nor right” framing suggests “centrism”. But kaupapa Māori politics doesn’t make positional claims – it isn’t concerned with the left, right, or centre – instead it makes a claim on relationships. Kaupapa Māori politics understands politics not as a struggle between left and right but as a relationship between Māori and the Crown.

This is why the early Māori Party leaders sometimes thought of themselves as the “permanent Treaty partners”. They saw their function as working with the Crown no matter the major party leading it. Tariana Turia and others imagined a Māori party with a permanent seat in government. Savvy commentators sometimes saw this as political pragmatism, toasting the Māori Party for playing both sides. Your leverage improves if you can go either way, etc.

But it was never about manoeuvring. For Māori, Labour or National, it’s still the Crown. Left wing, right wing, same bird. Kaupapa Māori politics doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between Labour and National. It makes its distinction between Māori (and their rangatiratanga) and the Crown (exercising its kāwanatanga). Whether it’s the Māori Party and its preference for National, or the Mana Movement and its preference for Labour and the Greens, the distinction remains the same. We’re Māori, and they’re still the Crown.

Communicating this ideology is easy enough at length, but communicating it in short is a devil. So, too, is making the proper distinctions. The Māori Party is part of the kāwanatanga, and it exercises Crown powers. Like I said yesterday, exercising tino rangatiratanga within the kāwanatanga is by definition impossible, and so kaupapa Māori politics must be a kāwanatanga politics. This is true, but only to an extent. Carrie Stoddart-Smith puts it best. “To ensure that kaupapa Māori retains its distinctively Māori core we must actively prevent Pākehā narratives from wilting our commitment to retrieve political space” [my emphasis].

In yesterday’s issue I argued one of the Māori Party’s fatal mistakes was taking the means – “sitting at the table” – as the end. Everything they did was tactical and functional, and nothing they did was strategic and instrumental. Sitting at the kāwanatanga table is still the means, but Stoddart-Smith, absolutely one of the party’s best thinkers, nails the end. Retrieving political space. “This is the only way we will dismantle the vestiges of colonisation, transform how we interact in a multicultural society, become the architects of our own solutions, and counteract the unequal distribution of power in Aotearoa New Zealand,” she writes.

In other words, kaupapa Māori politics, in retrieving political space, can restore the equal relationship between Māori and the Crown and rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga. The Māori Party’s role is not to represent one end of the relationship – iwi and hapū represent Māori – but to act as the go-between. The Māori Party are our representatives within the Crown. The party leaders understood this at times, but would usually fail to articulate it, and sometimes they were tempted to want more (e.g. they were never the “permanent Treaty partners”, as they once claimed). This is why ideology is important, beyond the day to day policy wins and losses. People must be able to place you.

Māori should know that better than anyone. This is why articulating what we know and practice as kaupapa Māori politics is so urgent, at least for the Māori Party. Anything less risks ceding further ground to Labour, another party making a strong claim on the ideology. Labour’s Māori caucus, for example, often acts as a go-between for Māori and the Crown, and at this point they and the Greens are the parties working to give the ideology practical meaning. If that continues as the status quo, the Māori Party may as well switch off the phones for good.