By Hone Harawira
Sunday Star Times
A FEW MONTHS ago my daughter said to me, “Dad, you know I’ll always vote for you, but I just can’t bring myself to vote for the Maori Party any longer. I don’t like what I see your mates doing, so I’m gonna vote for the Greens.”
That was a bit of a kick in the bum for me, having led the hikoi that gave birth to the Maori Party, but actually it wasn’t that unexpected. The rumblings of discontent have been growing for some time, and it’s election year now so we either deal with that discontent soon or we just might lose some votes come crunch time.
And we’ve been lucky really. We’re only six years old so everything about the Maori Party is still new – first Maori party in parliament, first Maori party in government, first ministers appointed to cabinet from a party voted in by Maori. And still the only independent Maori voice in parliament, although that independence is being increasingly questioned these days.
We’ve worked hard and a lot of the things we’ve achieved simply wouldn’t have happened without the Maori Party: the review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act (albeit with the possibility that it will be replaced by an equally anti-Maori one); recognition of the Maori flag; qualified approval of the UN Declaration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples; the Tobacco Inquiry and the two tobacco bills; and Whanau Ora.
The downside of being in government with National is having to put up with all the anti-worker, anti-beneficiary and anti-environment (and therefore anti-Maori) legislation that comes as a natural consequence of having a right-wing government.
The Maori Party is a coalition partner of that government and our co-leaders are ministers in that government, so unless we take a very strong position against some of the government’s legislative agenda we will be seen as supporting that agenda. And because leaders do most of the talking for a party (and control what the rest of their MPs say as well), our public statements over the last couple of years have been rather muted, to say the least.
Whether our views have been unduly influenced by our coalition obligations or not, the fact is that our public positions on some issues have changed a lot since we were in opposition.
The other day I was reading through our speeches from 2005-08 and some of them were mighty impressive. Very pro-Maori, very strong on workers’ rights and the rights of the poor, opposed to free trade agreements, supportive of the environment, anti-whaling and very much focused on kaupapa Maori.
A few months back I actually got told off for suggesting that we were voting more with National than before, so I checked up. In 2005-08 we voted 30% with National and 70% against, but in 2008-10 we voted 60% with National and 40% against.
Now most Maori don’t bother with the in-depth analysis I’ve just done but they know when something’s wrong and I have learnt to trust that gut feeling. They didn’t need any analysis to know the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act was wrong and they don’t need any analysis to know that their party’s going off-track in 2011.
And it seems that it just doesn’t matter where I go in the country, I am being constantly told by Maori in the street, in the shops, on marae, at the airports, and even in the cemeteries at tangi, that the Maori Party is coming off the rails – usually accompanied with a comment that I should keep speaking out, because none of my mates are.
So here are a few suggestions about what the Maori Party needs to focus on if we are to be successful in this year’s polls:
Be clear about who our constituency is and define our policies and positions on that basis. Stop pretending that we are a mainstream party – we’re not. The Maori Party operates on the basis that what is good for Maori is good for the nation so we should highlight policies that benefit Maori but also help the rest of the country. Tobacco was an excellent start. Simple and positive health and education initiatives and programmes to assist the poor are obvious starters as well.
Be bold in our positions. When governments say “Maori need to be realistic” what they’re really saying is “no”. But that shouldn’t make us afraid to say what it is our people want, and commit ourselves to doing our best to achieving it. If we are not successful, don’t let it be because we let somebody else stop us from daring to succeed.
Speak out strongly against National’s anti-social initiatives. No more of the polite press releases that say nothing. If we can’t stop them through persuasion at party leader or at cabinet level, then we need to signal that we will oppose them vigorously in the house, at select committee, at public meetings and on the streets if necessary.
Oppose National’s Marine and Coastal Areas bill. Just because we were consulted on it doesn’t mean we have to support it. The bill is National’s. It does not reflect the hopes and dreams of either the Maori people or the Maori Party, and was opposed by most Maori during the select committee hearings. If we support this bill, we’re effectively saying that our coalition with National is more important than our commitment to Maori – surely not?
Develop strategic relationships with the Greens and with Labour. In one of his more magnanimous moments during the flush of his 2008 election victory, John Key told us that “the Maori Party shouldn’t just aim to be a coalition partner for National, but a party that can work with anyone”. Now’s the time to take him up on his offer. Make it clear that in the interests of advancing the status of Maori we will be meeting with other parties to consider our options.
Stop trying to make us all be the same. When some of us say one thing and others take another view, learn to celebrate the difference rather than try to crush the dissent. Maori are a vibrant and diverse people – our strength as a party is in reflecting that diversity and appealing to all sectors of our society. And remember, the kaupapa is always more important than the coalition.
And, most importantly, go back to the people. We used to get out on the road a lot, particularly on the big issues. Since we’ve been in coalition with the Nats, though, we haven’t done any tours, and it’s not as if there haven’t been any big issues to deal with – National’s Marine and Coastal Areas bill is a classic example.
Somehow, though, it seems that we’ve become too busy to tour any more. I suggest we get “un-busy” real quick, and start reconnecting with the people who put us into parliament.
So there you go, folks – a few ideas to start the year. Over the next few months I will be writing articles focusing on issues which will affect Maori in the run-up to the 2011 election, including a more in-depth one on National’s Marine and Coastal Areas bill.
Feel free to drop me a line on my website, www.hone.co.nz