The Rise, Fall and Future of the independent Māori PartiesDr Rawiri Taonui
Earlier this month the Māori Party and Mana Movement reflected on the shock loss
of their last parliamentary seat in this year’s election. It is timely to consider their future.
The Māori Party fell in a perfect political storm comprising an inability to adapt to a reawakening of Māori within
Labour, a disconnect with young and mainstream Māori, an election that exposed their successes and failings and the rise
of a younger middle class Māori leadership.
The Relationship with National
The explanation of many commentators that the nine-year Māori Party confidence and supply agreement with the National
government caused their downfall is overly simplistic.
Between 2005 and 2011, the Māori electorates certainly signalled a preference for an alignment with Labour, however, in
the absence of a Labour government and with an imperative to advance Māori, the franchise largely supported the
arrangement with National.
Nor was the relationship a primary factor when the Māori Party and splinter child Mana Movement lost three seats in
2014. Had they not split their votes in Te Tai Tokerau, Tāmaki Makaurau, Te Tai Hauāuru and in the 2013 Ikaroa – Rāwhiti
by-election, they would have held as many as five seats including Waiāriki won by Te Ururoa Flavell.
Similarly this year the total party vote in the Māori seats, of what we can now term the anti-National bloc of New
Zealand First, the Greens and Mana, dropped three to six times more than for the Māori Party and National combined.
Nationally, Mana lost 89 per cent of its party vote compared to just 4 per cent for the Māori Party. Pro-Labour results,
yes, but hardly smashingly anti-Māori Party – National.
The Rise of Labour
The rise of Jacinda Ardern and Māori within Labour were main drivers for the downfall of the Māori Party. In late July,
with Labour was polling 24 percent
, the Māori Party was on track to win at least two to three seats.
That all changed on 1 Aug. Ardern ascended the Labour leadership. Young, charismatic and gifted, Jacinda-mania unlocked
a millennial desire for change across the left and raised Māori hopes. Kelvin Davis became Labour deputy leader, quick
promotions for Adrian Rūrawhe and Nanaia Mahuta followed. Within five weeks Labour had soared to 45 per cent
in the polls. Davis promptly predicted a double figure Māori MPs result.
On election night National had peeled Labour back to 37 per cent
everywhere that is except in the seven Māori seats where Labour’s party vote leapt as much as 22 per cent on 2014 to a
staggering 59 to 65 per cent
. Thirteen Māori Labour MPs entered parliament, including Davis in Te Tai Tokerau who was already guaranteed a seat via
the party list. The Māori Party hurtled out of parliament.
The Māori Party had failed to respond to the Māori upwelling for Labour. One reason was a tension between the policy of
working with either a National or Labour government and the high level declaration the party elicited in 2016 from King Tūheitia that he had turned his back on Labour
Initially an innocuous response to the anti-Māori Party rhetoric of previous Labour leader, Andrew Little, it had
prompted Labour to pull their Māori electorate candidates off the party list to confront the Māori Party head on in the
Māori seats. With the rise of Ardern and Davis this proved to be a master stroke in the Māori election.
The Māori Party needed to declare outright support for Ardern and Labour. Overtures were made, but in part because of
the declaration always in the context of working with either National or Labour
. This exposed the weakness of the Tūheitia strategy.
Māori respect the institution of the Waikato Kingitanga. However, it is antithetical for a tribe to take orders from the
leader of another. No one seems to take orders from the King in Tainui either, as the stunning final result for Nanaia
Mahuta in Hauraki-Waikato attests. Some will proffer that the only person taking orders was the King.
Young Māori have always been the seedbed of rangatiratanga Māori political movements. Toward the sharp end of the
election, the Māori Party and Mana Movement lost touch with this constituency.
One reason was that the cause celebre of the Māori Party, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, was beyond the political memory of many younger Māori voters. The
youngest Māori voters were just five years old when the famous hīkoi wound its way to parliament. As Labour MP Willie
Jackson commented “most Māori don’t care about the foreshore and seabed, they care about housing, health and education”
Another under-estimated factor, Annette Sykes recognised post-election, was the specific impact of Jacinda-euphoria on young Māori
. In the third week of August, a Māori TV poll showed 55 per cent of Māori aged 18 to 24 favouring Ardern as Prime Minister
As polling continued, an incredible 77.8 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds and 86.4 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds
supported Labour’s Mahuta in Hauraki-Waikato. In the last week, Hone Harawira, the master of youth politics, trailed
Davis among 18 to 24 year olds in Te Tai Tokerau 37.5 to 62.5 per cent
Obviously Ardern and Davis had appeal, but so too did dynamic social media aficionado, Tāmati Coffey and many of
Labour’s other younger Māori candidates. Willow-Jean Prime campaigned with baby Hīhana
. This was generational change. By comparison the front line of the Māori Party – Mana Movement Accord looked aged.
Drawn from a narrow band of kaupapa Māori, the clarion canticles of the independent Māori parties, were another source
of disconnect. Mārama Fox has reflected upon this saying they were “preaching to the choir
” and not reaching the 90 per cent of Māori that school, live and work in mainstream.
The kaupapa Māori and iwi led renaissance are strong and central to the emancipation of Māori alienated from Pākehā
society. They are also leaving many Māori behind.
For example, a National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis report (2013)
showed that 17 per cent of Māori are unsure of what iwi they descend from, 30 per cent do not know the hapū subtribe or
marae their grandparents came from and around 60 per cent do not know their pepeha identifiers (ancestral mountain,
river, canoe and tribal founder).
We also know that numbers participating in iwi surveys and votes are often minuscule. Only 515
responded to a recent survey among an iwi numbering tens of thousands.
Sewn in the seedbed of 1950s urbanisation this is the proliferating demographic navigating structural racism, an
unresponsive education system, modern impoverishment, new homelessness, record incarceration and suicide, and low income
employment. Many are doubly alienated from the Pākehā world and an iwi and kaupapa Māori world high on sometimes
self-serving cultural hyperbole.
The Price of Conflict
The Māori Party and Mana Movement paid a price for the conflict that beset them from 2010 onwards decimating their
Sykes said after the election that the Māori Party lacked its usual presence on the ground in Waiāriki
. Independent Māori political movements combat Pākehā hegemony on the smell of a good boil up. In 2010, Turia warned
against internal conflict in the party lest it “divide us and expose our vulnerabilities”
. When the Māori Party divided the following year, spawning the offshoot Mana Movement, they in effect asked their
supporters to pit their limited resources in an unsustainable struggle against each other. Once a vanguard of
liberationists against Pākehā parliamentary hegemony they engaged in a pitched battle Māori versus Māori for the Māori
electorates that neither would ever win.
That effort told in this election. From a multitude of social media pages in 2011 and 2014, many had disappeared, others
were inactive or simply shared posts from active sites. One uploaded a single post about growing winter vegetables.
At the macro-level, the Māori President Tuku Morgan negotiated Māori Party – Mana Movement Accord, an agreement not to
stand against each other in this election, delivered little. The numbers suggest that Māori Party supporters in the
north voted for Labour rather than Mana’s Hone Harawira, and in the other six seats contested by the Māori Party, Mana
supporters voted for Labour or did not vote at all.
Victims of Success
Paradoxically, the fate of the Māori Party was prescribed by their success. Working with three National governments they
had an influence on policy proportionately greater than their size. New Zealand signed the UN Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples, they halted a referendum on the Māori seats, and improved relationships between iwi and the Crown
and Treaty of Waitangi settlement processes.
With dignity, respect and cogency, the erudite Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, sharp witted Mārama Fox and studious Te
Ururoa Flavell made kaupapa Māori advancement by Māori for Māori less scary for Pākehā.
This added impetus to MMP by iterating the importance of not only more Māori in parliament, but also in all political
parties and in leadership and cabinet roles. The number of MPs of Māori descent jumped from 13 in 1996 to 19 in 2005 and
25 in 2014.
Māori MPs have led the minor parties for some time, Winston Peters our best shapeshifter since Māui, Meteria Turei an
able eight years helming the Greens. Mana gifted the leadership of Harawira, for a term. David Seymour leads an Act
Party of one.
Of the major parties, National was quicker to respond than Labour. We saw the rise of Hekia Parata, Simon Bridges and
the immitigable former Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett. The 2008 election brought 12 Māori into the National
government arrangement, the first double figure Māori in government, and only the second time after 1996 that Labour did
not hold a majority of Maori MPs. National had more Māori MPs than Labour in 2011 and 2014.
The rise of Māori in other parties was always going to squeeze the Māori Party. The cost, five seats lost since 2011 for
more than twice that many in other parties.
A Lesson from History
In an historical context, the fall of the Māori Party is unsurprising. Independent Māori parties rise upon a cause celebre under charismatic leadership. They often falter as the original raison d’etre passes, leaders move on, government ignores them or makes superficial promises, or Māori break ranks.
The 1890s Kotahitanga Movement Parliament collapsed after an en masse Pākehā MPs walk out on the first reading of their pinnacle Native Rights Bill (1894) and the deflective establishing of
Māori committees to manage sanitation on marae and land councils with Māori members under compulsory Pākehā
The urban Māori and iwi Māori Congress, which led 1990s opposition to the Fiscal Envelope, fell away when Prime Minister
Jim Bolger declined to meet them and Tainui and Ngāi Tahi opted for the cash.
Today, Labour offers a compelling young leader, a Māori deputy, more Māori MPs and promises of a brighter future.
However, greater Māori presence in mainstream parties does not extemporaneously produce equality. Māori have been there
before with Labour. The 1930s Rātana accord with Michael Joseph Savage promised much but delivered little. David Lange’s
government opened the doors for historical claims, but did more to limit rather than foster them. Rogernomics cut a
swathe through Māori communities. Labour now admits Helen Clark’s “haters and wreckers”
Foreshore and Seabed Act was a mistake. Labour’s disdaining of the Māori Party in this election mirrored previous
Parallel with the Civil Rights Movement
The rise of an educated Māori middle class leadership has parallels with the post-1970 African American experience.
The 1960s Civil Rights Movement promised much. Between 1870 and 1970, 40 African Americans entered the US Congress
. Since 1970, there have been more than 100, yet African Americans remain over-represented in health, education,
poverty, unemployment and incarceration.
Some go as far to say that a ‘colourism
’ operates in the United States favouring fair skinned, European featured representatives culturally inculcated to serve
mainstream interests. Is this our future?
This election crossed a new threshold in the Māori renaissance with a changing of the guard from leaders who honed their
craft in the great post-1970 protests to a younger, articulate and confident Māori middle class.
With a record 29 Māori MPs
, 20 in government and 10 in cabinet related positions, the numbers say the independent Māori parties do not have a
future. They also suggest a Māori Prime Minister sooner rather than later.
However, mitigating the risk of an unequal future includes retaining the Māori electorates until equality of life is
achieved. Within that equation, an independent Māori political entity will remain important if it champions the doubly
alienated and holds a potentially neoliberal middle class Māori leadership to account.
As Fox said this will require lifting the political literacy of mainstream Māori
. It will also require focus on a central cause of which Māori political and public service leadership at all levels and
in all areas of central, regional and local government will be the most important fulcrum for change.
And, like the Scottish Nationalist Party, who found factionalism precipitated defeat and unity preceded success, there
can only be one. Our children do not understand why there are two. If Mana Māori Motuhake is for the people then the
principle of the people must prevail over the personalities of the leaders.