(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz., February 7.)
In a memorably pungent turn of phrase, former Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said of Maori support for Labour in the 2017 election that it was like a battered wife going back to her abuser.
Okay, she was bitter at Maori voters turning against her party. Sour grapes, her critics would have said. But you could see where she was coming from.
Labour has traditionally commanded support from Maori, dating back to its alliance with the Ratana Church in 1936.
It’s one of the stranger quirks of New Zealand politics that Ratana is still regarded as exerting powerful political influence, to the extent that even National MPs routinely make the dutiful pilgrimage to Ratana pa every January for the event that kicks off the political year.
Few commentators bother to ask why Ratana is still deemed so important when the Church commands a relatively small following. At the time of the 2013 Census (I won’t embarrass Stats NZ by asking where the 2018 results are), Ratana had just 40,000 followers.
Neither does it seem to strike people as odd that politicians pay homage to Ratana despite the general consensus that that religious belief should not intrude on political affairs. The Catholic Church would be told where to get off, and rightly so, if it suggested that political parties send representatives to Sacred Heart Cathedral every year to give an account of themselves.
Be that as it may, the Ratana connection still works for Labour. But Fox wasn’t the first Maori politician to make the point that Maori haven’t always done well under Labour governments. Mana Motuhake in 1980 was formed out of a similar sense of frustration that Labour took its Maori support for granted.
Labour created the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 but it was National in the 1990s, under Jim Bolger and Sir Douglas Graham, that drove through the first big treaty settlements.
In that same decade, Labour lost its hold on Maori voters when New Zealand First, still in its infancy, won all of the five Maori seats then in existence. Labour has been trying ever since to woo them back and finally succeeded by securing the seven Maori electorates in 2017 – although Fox, who has experienced a string of adverse events since losing her seat, obviously didn’t think it deserved to.
All of this came into sharp focus in the events leading up to Waitangi Day.
Next year is an election year, and Labour will be anxious to consolidate its Maori support. This dovetails neatly with the desire of its coalition partner, NZ First, to build its reputation as the saviour of the regions and to atone for its acquiescence in government policies – notably the signing of the highly unpopular United Nations Compact on Global Migration – that are seen as a betrayal of its supporters.
Jacinda Ardern has pronounced 2019 the Year of Delivery, which suggests she realises that at some stage the public will expect the government to translate last year’s plethora of reports and working groups – presumably set up to buy time while the coalition parties adjusted to the shock of finding themselves in power – into action.
Over the past few days, a few clues have appeared as to how that will be done. In the best Labour tradition, it will involve spraying a great deal of money around – a lot of it in Northland, and targeted either expressly or by implication at Maori.
Last Sunday, flanked by Winston Peters and Shane Jones, Ardern announced a $100 million fund to help Maori landowners develop unproductive land. She followed that on Monday with details of an $82 million regional employment scheme. Both will be paid for out of Jones’ $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund, which with every passing day looks increasingly like the Peters and Jones re-election campaign chest.
Americans call this pork-barrel politics: the funding of local projects in the hope that voters will reward their benefactors at election time.
Pork-barrelling is a traditional Labour weakness, but Peters – perhaps taking his cue from Robert Muldoon, a socialist in National disguise and the man Peters appears to have modelled himself on – is favourably disposed to it too.
The announcements will have played well in the regions and to Maori, especially in Northland, where Peters and Jones have their roots. And Jones, in his blustering champion-of-the-people mode, will advance grandiloquent arguments about having to make up for nine years of National Party indifference.
Not since David Lange has a New Zealand politician been able to weave such meandering, elliptical sentences, presumably in the hope of leaving his interrogators cross-eyed. Just don’t ask Jones any inconvenient questions about accountability and transparency – or if you do, don’t expect a straight answer.