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August 16, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Coalition Forces?

Is the political relationship between National and the Maori Party a match made in heaven, or is it simply a marriage of convenience? Salient feature writer Paul Comrie-Thomson investigates.

The coalition between National and the Maori Party, which has endured now almost two years, is an odd relationship to say the least. The coalition deal by no means represented a sudden change of interests in the average Maori voter—for example, young Maori in particular continue to feature in disproportionate numbers in the most recent unemployment figures. This constituency is unlikely to be agitating for less government spending and lower taxes—cornerstones of the traditional National agenda.

Similarly, your average National-voting middle-class New Zealanders haven’t suddenly back flipped on their desire for a smaller government, and lower taxes. If anything, the surge in popularity following ex-National Party leader Don Brash’s ‘Nationhood’ speech in Orewa signifies that much of white “middle” New Zealand felt as though the Maori under the Labour Government had been empowered with too many rights through loose references to the Treaty of Waitangi.

So how then did this coalition come about? In a column from a July 2009 edition of The New Zealand Listener, political commentator Jane Clifton wraps it up by explaining “Labour became the No. 1 villain to much of Maoridom only because it devised and enacted the Foreshore and Seabed Act. National benefited from this by being the Maori Party’s enemy’s enemy, and therefore a strategic friend.”

From the National Party’s perspective it was also entirely strategic. With National’s two key coalition partners enjoying representation with five MPs each, the Maori Party effectively acts as a counterbalance to the ACT Party, ensuring the National Party can run a centrist agenda. It can look to the left when it needs to, and look right in alternate circumstances.

Holding the majority of seats in parliament, any relationship is undeniably going to work to the National Party’s advantage, but having said that, the Maori Party has enjoyed some policy achievements—most notably, the repeal of Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, and the institution of the Whanau Ora programme, as allocated for in the 2010 Budget.

Seabed for the whanau? For sure!

The preeminent point of contention between the Maori Party and the previous Labour Government was the Foreshore and Seabed debate that arose in 2003. It was the Foreshore and Seabed Act—passed in 2004—that ultimately led to the formation of the Maori Party. The repeal of the act has remained a central policy for the party.

The Maori Party clearly stated in their 2008 election policy that they “oppose the Crown sale or lease of the foreshore and seabed or its resources, including mining”, and the party managed to convince National to sign on to “a review of the application of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 to ascertain whether it adequately maintains and enhances mana whenua”.

In keeping with the Confidence and Supply Agreement, National has since agreed to repeal the act, which will no doubt be lauded as a huge victory for the Maori Party as it campaigns for the 2011 election. In a statement released in June this year, Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples announced: “We negotiated a review, we promised a repeal and to restore access to justice, and today we are proud to say we’ve achieved that. By working together with iwi leaders and the National Party we’ve been able to produce some significant advances”.

While the victory certainly is important for the Maori Party, the outcome of the revised legislation is likely to be less beneficial. In essence, is there really much difference between ‘Crown ownership’ and ‘public ownership’? Admittedly, that is an oversimplified analysis of the likely outcome of the revised agreement, but the Maori Party certainly hasn’t ‘gotten its way’ on this one. This is reflected in Hone Harawira’s comments: “Well, well, well … so it looks like we ain’t going to get what we wanted on the Foreshore and Seabed.”

Similarly, the Whanau Ora programme was only really a success in that it gained any funding at all in the 2010 Budget. Turia unsurprisingly heralded the announcement of funding for the plan as “A very significant day for Aotearoa. A day in which the government has placed its faith in families; a day in which the state invests in the potential of whanau.” Despite the brave face, Labour’s spokesperson for Maori Social Development and Employment Nanaia Mahuta was quick to point out that secretly, “Tariana Turia must feel a little short changed after the government decided to allocate a mere $33.5 million dollars a year for four years to fund Whanau Ora, $800 million dollars short of what she first expected”.

Columnist John Minto is perhaps most cynical about the whole Whanau Ora programme, predicting that in spite of its “aim to benefit struggling Maori families, National will it use to undermine state provision of social services and open the sector for the damages and ravages of privatisation. Maori will be the predominant losers”.

Does this relationship alienate Maori voters?

Maori voters have traditionally associated themselves with Labour, thus the coalition agreement has the potential to alienate them from the Maori Party. Moreover, while the Maori Party has achieved some of their policy goals, these appear to serve corporate Maori much more than the average Maori voter.

Jon Johansson, a Senior Lecturer in Victoria University’s Political Science programme, asks: “If you are a Maori voter in South Auckland in 2011, what are you going to do? Are you going to reward the Maori Party for its Foreshore and Seabed Act? How many busses does it take to get from South Auckland to a beach? Do you even go to a beach, let alone have any access to whatever benefits accrue from having customary title over that beach?”

From these questions come uncertainties over the future of the party. “Maori might give them a second chance, but the tension you see there between the Hone Harawiras, and the leadership in the party—and the trajectory they’ve taken the party—you can see that Hone reflects that core constituency that actually puts the party in there. The leadership will alienate the Maori electorate at their peril,” Johansson says.

If one looks at the history of party success in the Maori seats, after the introduction of MMP—when the Ratana-Labour deal broke up—New Zealand First claimed those seats. Labour then claimed them back, and while the advent of the Maori Party saw a few of the Maori seats won by that Party, Labour has managed to retain some, indicating that Maori voters don’t appear to have an automatic association with the Maori Party.

So, even though the Maori Party has achieved much of what they set out to do, recent unemployment figures reflect that the relationship hasn’t trickled down to benefit their core constituency. Alongside the fact that the Maori Party is already failing to secure the Maori vote entirely, life for many Maori under the National-Maori-ACT government may call into question the continued viability of the Maori Party.

Is white middle-class New Zealand similarly threatened?

“Only on a daily basis,” says Johansson.

“If you have ever been to a National Party conference, one of the things that really stands out is the absence of Tangata Whenua and other ethnic groups. It is still overwhelmingly a white middle-class party.”

Despite being riled by the media as racist, the most important effect of Brash’s ‘Nationhood’ speech at the Orewa Rotary Club was that it facilitated the spectacular rise in support for National. Brash spoke of what he saw as a “dangerous drift towards racial separatism in New Zealand… where the minority has a birthright to the upper hand”. Controversial as his opinion was, a lot of the public seemed to agree, and National’s standing was boosted significantly in the polls.

While Brash narrowly lost the 2005 election, his speech really did sow the seeds for the National Party’s reclamation of parliament in 2008. As such, Johansson points out “many National Party supporters would have been far happier if there had just been a straight out National-ACT coalition, because then they would have had a policy mix more conducive to why they voted for National”.

He does comment, however, that despite many National supporters’ clear distaste surrounding an agreement with the Maori Party, “the smarter people inside National understand that National can’t not be in that action, and for too many years it wasn’t—certainly during the Brash era”.

“Bill English understood the problem, but was in there at the wrong time to do anything about it, so Key has struck the right path for his party, and I think National Party supporters are willing to swallow a lot because they were out of power for nine years. They don’t want to return to that state anytime soon, so they realise the real politic and advantage that accrues from having that greater strategic flexibility.”

While there certainly is some support for Key’s decision to include the Maori Party in the arrangement as outlined, Johansson concedes, “There is still a certain amount of unrest about [the coalition], and you see that from time to time in the reaction to anything that Hone Harawira says.”

Harawira has recently said he would not be comfortable to see his children with Pakeha partners—such comments do little more than to widen the racial gulf in New Zealand, and simply justify the racial prejudice much of white New Zealand still so clearly holds.

One woman interviewed on TV One’s Marae programme thought it appropriate to suggest that Maori should “stay” up in Waitangi, and leave the rest of us in peace “down here”. While her ignorance borders on comical, views such as these really do illustrate that many of National’s traditional constituency clearly remains threatened by the party’s coalition partner.

Where to for the Maori Party?

Despite the problems faced by both parties, the Maori Party faces much broader issues than their coalition partners. It isn’t unrealistic to expect the Maori Party’s constituency to give the party another go in 2011, despite its relative failings. Similarly, it isn’t unlikely the party will attempt to engage in another agreement, especially with its pressing need to keep the removal of the Maori seats off the National Party’s agenda. Moreover, day after day, it becomes clearer that the Labour Party isn’t going to able to seriously contend the next election. But realistically, Labour will be revitalised, and the Maori Party will have to reevaluate its relationships, especially if it aims to keep its constituents happy.

In the 2005 election the Labour Party attempted throughout the campaign to discredit the Maori Party. They did this by associating the party with National, and to Labour’s dismay this did little more than to set into motion the cogs of partnership, which underscore the present coalition. Despite this, Johansson contends “that in many respects Pita Sharples would be happier sitting around a Labour Cabinet than a National one, and the attitudes of your average Labour politician would be more comforting to Pita Sharples than those on the National side”.

The problem lies with the Maori Party’s other leader—Tariana Turia. Turia was a member of the Labour Party before the Foreshore and Seabed legislation saw her resign in her refusal to tow the party line. Johansson believes that “the utu that she struck in 2008 surrounding the circumstances of her resignation from Labour will be ongoing, and so long as she is there, she is actually an impediment to the party.”

“You have to flip it on its head here. It suits the Maori Party at the moment to stick with National because it is getting some policy wins, but the Maori Party can only survive long-term if it can in fact go with either, and so long as Tariana is there, it is shutting off half of its equation.”

Therefore, as long as Turia remains at the helm of the Maori Party, a future Labour government will have one of two choices. They can either pander to the party’s interests in an attempt to bury the hatchet with Turia specifically, or on the other hand, and perhaps more realistically, Labour could simply do its damndest to discredit the Maori Party among its core voters, purloining all the Maori seats, consequently destroying the party.

While certain constituencies may feel threatened by the Maori Party in its relationship with National, it is the Maori Party that in the end faces the most threatening situation.

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