Labour must understand and work with Māori

Opinion 05/06/2018
Photo: Getty.

By Mitch Harris, Night Talk host.

OPINION: One of the most beautiful and mysterious natural phenomena is the ability of schools of fish and flocks of birds to move as one.

There is something similar when it comes to Maori politics. A divine intervention in the way Maori almost act as one in order to ensure the strongest possible voice in Government.

Of course the diversity of viewpoint is the same across Maori communities as any other. Not all Maori voted for Labour, but enough did to deliver Labour all the Maori seats, wipe out the Maori Party and change the Government.

Think how precise the Maori vote was. The Coalition needed all the Maori seats. If the Maori Party had managed to hold on to just one seat the equation would have been completely different and National may well have clung on to power.

Labour is very aware that it would still be warming the opposition benches if Maori had not delivered those seats.

And think about the last Government. National has not traditionally drawn much support from Maori but even then there was a strong Maori voice at the table with the Maori Party. As strong as they could expect in the circumstances.

What is not generally understood is the bipartisan way Maori MPs have worked together over the years. Traditionally, young iwi leaders have been directed toward one of the two main parties to ensure there is always a voice in the corridors of power. The blood ties are stronger than the political ties and they will act across party lines in the interests of tangata whenua. 

There have been a few grumblings that there wasn't much reward for Maori in the first budget.  But Labour is very aware that it would still be warming the opposition benches if Maori had not delivered those seats. The Deputy Prime Minister is Maori and there are plenty of people in the Labour Maori caucus with a strong disinclination to take backward steps.

Whanau Ora is not about the handing out of dollops of cash.

Of course the issues of housing, poverty and inequality underlay the switch of allegiance by many Maori voters toward the Party that has more empathy toward the disadvantaged.  

The Maori Party didn't have the power to hold National's feet to the fire on poverty. But it did achieve a signature breakthrough with Whanau Ora. After Whanau Ora, iwi leaders will never accept Governmental paternalism again.

And this change is something that the traditionally statist Labour Party needs to get its head around. Whanau Ora is empowerment. You could even call it delegation, and delegation is something the party of business instinctively understands. Whanau Ora is not about the handing out of dollops of cash. It is about Maori running their own health and social services. Maori want to run their own show.

Now that iwi are restoring their economic bases and gathering strength they want to make decisions for themselves. As they thought they were promised in the Treaty of Waitangi.

And who could say that is bad thing?  Maori appear to have a much longer view when it comes to investment. There are no 3-5 year cost/ benefit horizons for a railways line in the Maori world. The horizon is much further. And it is the same for the environment.

If Labour fails to understand this, and so far the signs have not been promising, then divine intervention will steer Maori toward whatever political vehicle is most sympathetic toward their aspirations.

Mitch Harris is host of RadioLIVE Night Talk, 8pm weeknights.