The Loss of the Maori Party

I’m a bit late with the topic of the loss of the Maori Party from parliament but it’s one that’s important to me, so I want to get my thoughts on record.

One of the biggest topics of discussion following our election on the weekend was how voters in the Maori electorates cast their votes for Labour again. As a result, the Maori Party is out of parliament for the first time time its inception.

To lose people like Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox from our parliament is bad enough, but the loss of a separate voice for Maori is damaging for the whole country.

Short History of New Zealand’s Maori Seats

First a wee history lesson. We’re a very young country. There were no people here until around 1300. Then Maori came, settling all over the country in a single mass migration. Europeans made their “discovery” of the country in the 17th century (Abel Tasman) and the first European to land here was the English Captain James Cook in 1769.

The Maori and the British came to an agreement about sovereignty and government about seventy years later and in 1840 came the signing of our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi or Tiriti o Waitangi.

The establishment of our parliament came in 1854 with 99 seats. As a British colony, we had British rules for voting eligibility. That meant men had to own, lease or rent property above a certain value (then £50) to vote. (Women got the vote in 1893.)

Property ownership was difficult for Maori to prove as most land was held in common by iwi (tribes) or hapu (extended family). Thus 1867 saw the establishment of the Maori electoral roll and all Maori men over 21 became eligible to vote whether or not they met the property qualification. Other voters still had to meet that prerequisite until 1879.

At the same time four of the seats in parliament were reserved for Maori, which was relative to the number of eligible voters at the time. (Maori can now choose whether to enrol on the Maori or general roll. There are currently seven Maori seats, which means around a third of Maori choose to be on the general roll.)

Maori mostly give their party vote to the Labour party, though since the 1990s have often given their electorate vote to MPs in other parties. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lot of talk about Labour taking the Maori vote for granted, but it didn’t change election results. Labour still got a majority of the party votes in the Maori electorates.

The Creation of the Maori Party

Pita Sharples, John Key, Tariana Turia, signing National-Maori Party coalition agreement

(L-R) Dr Pita Sharples, John Key (then Prime Minister and leader of National Party), Tariana Turia, signing their 2008 coalition agreement. (Source: Newswire)

Then in 2004 the Foreshore and Seabed Act led MP Tariana Turia to resign from the Labour Party and form the Maori Party with co-leader Dr Pita Sharples. That Act was seen as a major betrayal of Maori.

The National Party was in opposition to the Act.

Turia won the subsequent by-election with 90% of the vote, but most the major parties didn’t put up candidates against her.

At the 2005 election the Maori Party won four seats of the then six Maori seats, but Labour would have nothing to do with them. Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark famously called them “the last cab off the rank” when it came to coalition talks.

In 2008 the Maori Party won five of the seven Maori seats. The Labour Party lost badly and the National Party got the most seats overall.

National didn’t need the Maori party to have enough seats to lead a government, but they offered to make them part of the coalition anyway. After consultation with their members, the Maori party agreed.

The Maori Party in Government

Since then, the Maori Party have always been part of a National-led government and held several portfolios. They have made enormous gains for Maori. In particular, their Whanau Ora (Family Health) initiative has been exceptional.

However, many Maori continue to be unhappy with the Maori Party allying itself for the National Party. Support for the Maori Party has fallen because of that and as memories fade re 2004. Thus, in the latest election, all the Maori seats went back to Labour and the Maori Party is out of parliament.

The 2017 Election Loss

This is a terrible loss for both Maori and all New Zealand. The two co-leaders of that party in particular, Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell, were excellent MPs.

Proportionately, there are more Maori MPs in parliament than in the population. Further, there is not actually a problem with the policies of Labour, National, or the Greens in relation to Maori. However, it’s easy for the voice of Maori to be lost when they’re part of a bigger party. That’s what happened in 2004.

Further, with all the Maori seats going to Labour, they’re with a party that probably won’t be in government. That means none of the MPs representing specifically Maori electorates are in a position to do much for Maori.

There is a lot of comment that the Maori Party damaged itself by aligning itself with the National Party during the last nine years. However, by doing that they were part of government and were thus able to get things done for Maori.

National got the most votes again in 2017 and will probably lead the next government. (We won’t know for at least a week due to ongoing coalition talks and the counting of special votes.) If the Maori Party were still there, they could continue with the work they were doing.

Marama Fox put if quite clearly when she heard all the Maori seats had gone to Labour. She said it was like a family violence victim going back to their abuser.

The tweets were just as blunt. People were referring to those in Maori electorates who gave their vote to Labour as stupid, idiotic, brainless, and multiple other words besides. Before the election, most of the abuse was going the other way. There were even accusations of threatening behaviour towards those contemplating voting anything other than Labour. Feelings are running very high on both sides.

I’m just sorry we lost two of the country’s best MPs.

The Future of the Maori Party

The good news is that former Rotorua GP Dr Lance O’Sullivan will stand for the Maori Party in the next election in 2020. I can see this leading to a big comeback for the Maori Party. It’s been the fate of all small parties that are part of a coalition government that they don’t get the recognition they deserve. Three years without the Maori Party in parliament will, I think, make people realize just how much they did.

I expect to see the Maori Party back at the next election. I hope I am right. Three years with Winston Peters and NZ First as part of the governing coalition will have everyone begging for a bit of sanity again.


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15 Responses to “The Loss of the Maori Party”

  1. I want to see the Maori Party back in full force.

    I believe that, unlike some other countries, we are so lucky in New Zealand with our recognition of the culture, influence and history of our indigenous people.

    We are all the richer for this influence

    • I completely agree Martin. There’s so much more I could have written.

      We often think we have issues with race relations in NZ, and we do. However, you go to any other country and compared to them we’re a paradise in terms of race relations. I think the difference is that there’s more respect of the issues, differences etc here.

      On a separate issue, I’ve come across quite a few people who would like to see the Greens go into coalition with the Nats rather than NZ First and are very disappointed that the Greens won’t have a bar of it. The Nats have contacted the Greens and been rebuffed as I’m sure you know and they say that their membership wouldn’t like it. However, I think it would be quite popular with the wider population.

      • Ken says:

        I can understand why Nat supporters would prefer to try things out with the Greens, rather than Winston. I even know Nats at Parliament who have said they’d rather go into opposition than deal with Winston again. But it isn’t the right thing to do, nor do I think it would work. It wouldn’t work because the differences are too great in both policy goals, but also fundamental values. As I heard someone say recently, it’s like asking the Against People’s Faces Being Eaten Off Party to form a govt with the Eating People’s Faces Off Party. Most of the electorate don’t understand the gap is so wide, because they don’t understand how fundamentally at odds green economics is with neo-liberal capitalism. (This is also why some people think social issues shouldn’t be part of the Green kaupapa, when they are actually not separable.) The punditry certainly should know all this, and I don’t know if they are actually ignorant or being mischievous in not educating their readers as to the facts. And it isn’t the right thing to do, because the Greens campaigned specifically to remove the Nats as govt, not prop them up for a forth term. Doing the exact opposite (as Winston did in 1996) would kill them at the polls in 2020.

        And the reason it won’t happen is that the membership decides whether to accept a coalition proposal, not the leadership. As James Shaw has said, the Nats would need to entirely change their stripes for a blue/green coalition proposal to have a chance. Just not going to happen. I’m just back from overseas so haven’t been following closely, but this article covers a lot of these points.

        • Welcome back!

          I agree that the economic policies of the Greens and Nats are too far apart. Currently the Nats are doing a much better job on social policy though than they often have in the past even as recently as last decade.

          No one gets all they want in a coalition. However, I think Bolger was mostly being mischievous when he mentioned it. I think it was a tactic to strengthen the Nats negotiating position.

          • Ken says:

            And the Prime Minister mentioned it the day before the election. Very cynical. The Nats may be doing a little better on social policy, but that’s not saying much considering their very low starting point, and most of what they’ve done has been for political reasons only, to dilute social matters as issues for the opposition, not because they believe in the policies. And the most urgent social policy, housing, they are still dismal on. But ironically, the Nats are happy to compromise on social policy to form a coalition, as was demonstrated with the Maori Party. What they won’t compromise on is economic policy, as that is what they really care about. The first thing they did upon becoming govt in 2008 was go into urgency to repeal or gut every environmental bill passed in the previous term by Labour and the Greens. That was their very first priority. Later, when they gutted the emissions trading scheme a second time to allow such things as Russian hot air credits into NZ, the Maori Party stated very forcefully and publicly that they would not support the bill, which sent the value of NZ credits – many had been granted to iwi groups – to almost zero. They were told their entire relationship with National was in jeopardy if they did so and had to make a humiliating public retraction. Those, like Gareth Morgan and a lot of the media, who say the Greens should drop their concern for people and focus on the environment so they can work with the Nats have it exactly backwards. They just don’t know what they’re talking about.

            And thanks, we had a great trip!

  2. Stuartg says:

    I want to see the Maori party back as well!

    Let’s hope Winston doesn’t stick with his daft idea of a referendum. Here’s at least one Pakeha who would vote for retention of the Maori seats.

    • Me too Stuart. But just a referendum would stir up tension that isn’t even there at the moment. Winston did say he had no bottom lines, and Bill English wants to keep the Maori seats, so I expect the issue will be off the table. The only reason that Winston wants them gone imo is because he won them all in 1996, then lost them all again in 1999. He wants a bit of utu.

      • Stuartg says:

        Not a bad point, Heather. Utu isn’t supposed to be valid in current day politics, but if anyone were to raise it, it would be Winston.

  3. Mark R. says:

    Interesting post, thanks. NZ has done a lot better job than most (all?) other countries when it comes to their treatment of native peoples. The genocide of Native Americans is our original sin (that and slavery), but we’ve really done nothing to atone; historically, after most of the genocide was done, we did nothing for them except force them onto reservations and break any treaty that becomes inconvenient for the whites; this still happens today. “They’re on our pipeline route, dammit!” It’s NZ’s system of government that allows the Maoris a legitimate voice and platform. We have the black caucus and other minority committees, but they don’t have any real power, just some influence in the democratic party. The republicans (obviously) want nothing to do with minorities except as tokens. Hopefully in 2020, the Maori people will retake their place and their voice. The cyclical nature of politics almost guarantees it.

    Speaking of the Maori, have you ever read Keri Hulme’s The Bone People? I imagine you have since she’s a national treasure and that’s her most famous novel. I read it around 1990. It was my first introduction to a New Zealand novelist and the Maori people. I absolutely loved the book’s characters, tone, style and imagery. It is also violent and disturbing, but somehow succeeds as a wonderful love story. Hulme seemed optimistic that the West and the Maoris could coincide, integrate and succeed together.

    • Actually, I haven’t read The Bone People. I’ve never got around to it. Everyone says it’s excellent, but every time I read a book that’s won lots of awards I’ve hated it so I never know whether people are just saying it because they think they should. As a result, I tend to avoid books that win awards.

      • Mark R. says:

        I read it before it won any awards that I knew of…just a lucky recommendation from an old friend. As a kiwi (that isn’t derogatory is it?) you probably wouldn’t find it as novel (no pun intended) and fascinating as a young adult from the U.S., esp. back in the early 90’s when the earth and its information matrix was much smaller.

  4. Lee Knuth says:

    Thanks for the insight into the NZ election. Though not quite the same, voting one’s conscience may not get the result you want as happened here in the US in several elections.

  5. nicky says:

    It is kinda a weird, Lance O’Sullivan sounds definitely Irish, he’s Catholic, also sounds Irish, and -from a S.A. pov- he looks ‘white’, possibly Irish too ☺, yet he is a Maori.
    I looked him up and he definitely is a what I would call a very worthy person (whether Maori or Irish). I share your hope he will do well in the next election.

    • I get confused because when I was a kid there was a famous NZ jockey called Lance On Sullivan. He looks Maori to me. There’s been so much intermarriage that pure-blooded Maori are virtually non-existant. I have cousins who are full siblings with a wide range of skin tone in one family, including whiter than me, and most of my ancestry is Scottish.

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