Election night 2017 was a deeply disappointing day for supporters of the Māori Party. And, full disclaimer for those who are new to my writing, I am a member of the Māori Party and gave my two ticks to the party at the election. Watching from my friends home in North-West London I felt the pain of my friends in the party who have fought for the kaupapa for so long, and now found the movement not quite dead, but struggling on life support. Our last stronghold, Waiariki, broken. A decade after claiming 5 of the 7 Māori electorates the party had been ejected from Parliament on the back of a resurgent Labour party and an association with the National party that harmed support across the motu. So where did it all go wrong? And where does the party go from here?
First and foremost, the election defeat lay in the inability of the Māori party to react to the resurgent Labour party and their appeal of a different, and better, kind of society. There are a myriad of social problems affecting Māori, and while the track record was good, the Māori party failed to deliver a fairer society for Māori. Unemployment remained high. Poverty remained high. Incarceration rates remained high. The association with National hurt the party deeply. The wins were simply not enough. And in the Māori electorates, the Māori Party were the Governing party who were not delivering enough for Māori. Now, we can argue about the achievements of the Māori party, and over time I plan to discuss these in great depth, but at the moment that does not matter. What does in perception. And not enough time was spent confronting the perception that the Māori Party was National in disguise in the Māori electorates.
It became clear during the campaign that a number of strategic mistakes had also been made. Aligning with the Kingitanga was clearly a mistake. Perhaps blinded by the Tainui-tinted world that Tuku Morgan operates in, a political alliance with a supposedly neutral Rangatira that placed one of the leading lights of the Iwi (Nanaia Mahuta) against the wishes of Kingi Tuheitia did not go down well with the people of the region. While the optics were bad, the politics were even worse. The Māori Party was in its genesis, a grassroots movement. Founded on the strength of Dame Tariana Turia’s actions in crossing the floor of the House and leaving the Labour Party it energised Māori activists and provided a rallying point for Māori to voice their frustrations at a society that since the 1980s had been dominated by long-serving politicians and the all-powerful New Zealand Māori Council, followed by the growing influence of Iwi organisations. For better or worse, the concept of the corporate Māori elite had started to take hold and the cosy relationship between these organisations and the National and Labour Governments of the 1990s and 2000s led to a growing dis-ease amongst Māori. So while the confiscation of the foreshore and seabed was the catalyst for the movement, it was a movement of people who had had enough of decisions being made in the backrooms of Wellington and wanted more influence back at the marae. This made the relationship with the Kingitanga, and the perceived capture of the Māori party by Iwi Leaders, a difficult proposition for Māori to support.
And then the campaign itself. Each election I have bemoaned the lack of coherent policy from the Māori party, in particular an economic and social development policy that consists of more than referencing Whānau Ora. Add to that a strange association with One Pacific, and the standing of non-Māori candidates; the campaign looked to be one without any direction, and with resources diverted away from where they were needed the most.
So, where do we go from here? First, we need to be realistic that there is a lot of work to do to reconnect with Māori communities over the next three years. A new party president is a good place to start, and a return to grassroots control of the party is badly needed. A series of wananga around the country to reformulate party policy will provide a refresh of ideas, and allow the party to get a sense of direction lost since the repeal and replacement of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. A suite of well-thought out, kaupapa Māori policies will provide a compelling alternative to the Labour Government.
Second, the Māori party are now the opposition party to Labour’s Māori caucus. National is not going to do the job, so Māori outside of Parliament are going to have to stand up and work with the Government to help them achieve their goals in supporting Māori development and to hold them to account when they do not. Selecting the seven candidates who will contest the 2020 election is crucial, but should not be delayed too long. These seven will need to spend as much of the next three years connecting with their electorates and acting as if they were the existing opposition to the Labour Government. If Dr Lance O’Sullivan is going to step up and stand for the Māori Party then a decision needs to be made if he stands against both Kelvin Davis and Hone Harawira in the North because to do so as party leader will be a tough mission. In Marama Fox, Lance O’Sullivan, and Howie Tamati; the party have experienced and high-profile candidates in three seats. It is a good place to start from.
A period of reflection is required over the Christmas period, but the party needs to be ready to go by February. By acting as a strong opposition voice over the next three years while rebuilding the grassroots base of the party and developing a strong, coherent policy platform from which to advocate for the advancement of Māori, the Māori Party will be well-placed to return to Parliament in 2020. If they do, a term on the cross-benches would be a good idea.