WikiLeaks cable: Maori Party prospects diminish in September election

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

This is one of the diplomatic cables about New Zealand held by Wikileaks.

August 30, 2005
SUBJECT: MAORI PARTY PROSPECTS DIMINISH IN SEPTEMBER ELECTION

Classified By: Siria Lopez, Auckland Consul General, for reasons 1.4 (B) and (D)

(U) This cable originated from AmConGen Auckland. It replaces and updates Wellington 661.

1. (C) Summary: Although the Maori Party has made impressive gains in membership and general support in its one year of existence, it is unlikely to capture all seven Maori constituency seats in the September 17 election. Its probable 3-5 constituency seats would still make the Maori Party a potential coalition partner, however. Maori leaders had been insisting that it would be up to their followers to decide on a coalition partner. But following an August 29 speech by National Party leader Don Brash that called for an end to separate Maori-oriented Government ministries, the Maori party announced it had definitively ruled out a coalition with National.

2. (C) Given that either Labour or National is likely to need coalition partners to form a government, National's announcement carries some risks. It seems more and more that National has no natural coalition partner other that NZ First, and a previous coalition with that party in the 1990s was not a success. But the Nats probably figure they gain more from tapping into "middle New Zealand's" unhappiness with Labour's preferential treatment of Maori and other groups than it does from holding out for the unlikely chance that Maori voters would choose a National-Maori party coalition. As Labour has also tried to distance itself from Maori party leadership, the Nats may also be trying to play on some voters' fears that a Labour victory would mean a leftist, Labour-Greens-Progressives-Maori coalition. End Summary.

Background: Maori Party Makes Electoral Registration Inroads

3. (SBU) Maori anger over a perceived Labour Government turnaround on Maori claims to New Zealand's foreshore and seabed led to the creation of the Maori Party in July 2004 (reftel A). Since then the Maori Party has sought to become the Maori voice in New Zealand's parliament. For
the September 2005 election, the Party will contest all seven exclusively Maori constituency seats, as well as other general electorate and list seats for a current total of 51 candidates. Dr. Whatarangi Winiata is Maori Party President but the party's most popular and visible figure is co-leader (and former Labour Party member) MP Tariana Turia. Turia will run against her Labour Party nephew for the Te Tai Hauauru seat. Pita Sharples, an educator, is the other party co-leader and is taking on the charismatic but politically wounded Labour MP John Tamihere in Tamaki-Makaurau.

4. (SBU) Despite the odds against its survival -- and Tamihere's predictions of its stillborn birth -- the Maori Party has evolved into a real Maori political alternative to Labour. Since its inception, the Party has managed to sign up more than 19,000 new members through "flaxroots" efforts, an impressive achievement. Notwithstanding, voter
numbers are more important than total card-carrying party members. Under New Zealand's political system, Maori citizens have the option of signing up for either the general roll or the Maori electoral roll, which votes on the seven Maori constituency seats (seats the National
Party has long pledged to abolish). Currently, 204,519 persons have enrolled on the Maori roll; 166,822 on the general roll. This is a nearly 9% increase over 2002 figures for both rolls. Of first-time enrollments, mainly younger voters, 55 per cent are opting for the Maori roll. The latter represents the fruits of the Maori Party's strategy to focus registration efforts on first-time, younger voters
who lack a history of voting for Labour (reftel B).


5. (SBU) But what makes the Maori Party worth watching is its potential as a coalition partner. It is widely assumed that Turia will win her electorate seat. The Party is also expected to capture other Maori constituency seats. Each MP gained increases the party's legislative influence. (NB: The Maori party would be allocated additional list
parliamentary seats if it gains more of a percentage of the party vote than it meets with its electorate seats alone.

If the Party gets more electorate seats than party vote share, it will keep those "overhang" seats until the next election. This will affect the number of seats the major parties would need to form a coalition.) Since neither Labour nor National are expected to win clear majorities,
they will need parliamentary partners to form workable governments. National Party's Don Brash's speech of August 29 in which he promised to review Maori-based government agencies, however, have incited Turia and Sharples to spurn National as a coalition partner. Despite the Maori Party's birth as a protest against Labour's foreshore and seabed legislation, now that it has ruled out a coalition with National, Labour
is its only potential coalition partner.

Policies: Difficult to Assess

6. (C) From the start, the Maori Party has been criticized for its lack of policy pronouncements. This situation is little better in the immediate lead-up to the September polls -- that is if a voter desires articulated party platforms in the conventional, Euro-American sense.

In May, the Party did publicize the centerpiece of its policies or "tikanga" but it actually consisted of sweeping, idealistic guiding principles firmly based on Maori socio-cultural values. One searches the "tikianga" document in vain for the Party's position on taxes or
health care. For that, one must often rely on the ad hoc emergence of specifics as uttered by party politicians on the campaign trail. For example, we now know that the Maori Party wants to lower the retirement age of Maori to 60, make tertiary education free for everyone and eliminate tax for those earning under $25,000. It has also slowly filtered out that the Party wants to make Maori language compulsory for all civil servants, affirm Maori authority on the national resource review process and reinstate New Zealand's moratorium on genetically-modified plants.

7. (SBU) In terms of foreign policy, a Maori Party representative, Charles Joe, spoke to a University of Auckland audience mostly in the idealistic generalities of the "tikanga" document. Perhaps because the audience was non-Maori and the other party politicians present offered
specifics, Joe also confirmed that the party wanted NZ's nuclear-free stance maintained, supported NZ's international peacekeeping role and had a "no first-strike policy." The Party also placed priority on the UN draft on indigenous people and wanted an international treaty for
indigenous nations. As Turia has said in the past, Joe added that his party would oppose any international treaties or agreements that breached the principles enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi. That is to say its foreign and trade policies would be driven by adherence to
Maori values. (Note: The Maori Party has been accused of refusing to criticize Robert Mugabe's regime simply because he is a black African leader. The Party also opposed a recent bill to strengthen NZ's anti-terrorism finance laws. Still, it did support the rightist Federated Farmers in the farmers' land access battle with Labour. End Note)

Election Prospects

8. (C) The Maori Party has been challenged from its inception by the poverty of its core constituency. Financially disadvantaged, the party has focused instead on harnessing "people power" by drafting volunteers to go door-to-door to drum up support. Labour's John Tamihere told Auckland Consul General that the Maori Party's real strength lies in the seductive, emotional appeal of its message of grievance to relatively well-off, middle-class Maori. As a result, it enjoys strong support from influential Maori institutions such as Maori radio stations, TV, university, language schools and health and welfare organizations. This Maori infrastructure provides the Party with its transport and information resource needs and thus makes up for any ostensible lack of cash. Another Maori political observer agreed that Maori institutions, although funded under Labour governments, are "hotbeds" of Maori Party support. She and Tamihere both observed that a
large Maori turnout in September will hurt Labour.

9. (SBU) Before the election date was announced, many observers were predicting that the Maori Party would obtain at least five constituency seats. In several polls, Maori party candidates such as Pita Sharples and Hone Harawira (for Te Tai Tokerau) were pulling way ahead of their Labour rivals. Since then, however, some leads have narrowed; Sharples is now running neck-to-neck with Tamihere (who probably now prefers Labour Party money over Maori institutional support). Harawira's lead over Labour's Dover Samuels has almost halved. The Maori Party (and
Labour) is losing some votes with the entry of independent candidates and those of Destiny New Zealand, a party allied with a conservative Maori Christian church. (Destiny also appeals to socially conservative Pacific Islanders, also being courted by the Maori Party, who were upset by Labour's prostitution and civil union bills.)

10. (SBU) Perhaps more influential than election rivals, however, is the Labour tactic of scaring Maori by claiming a vote for the Maori Party is a vote for National. This message is being drummed into Maori and other left-leaning voters. The Labour tactic is particularly effective on those Maori concerned about National's threat to reduce
welfare benefits. Some Maori voters may try to reconcile their divided loyalties by voting for the Maori Party for constituency seats and ticking Labour for the party/ "list" vote.

11. (SBU) Although it is also contesting 35 general electorate seats in an effort to appeal to non-Maori, the Party is not expected to win many, if any, of these seats. The small size of the Maori electorate vote in general means it will not obtain many list seats. A more realistic scenario is that the Maori Party will win 3-5 Maori
constituency seats--but not 7. This result would still make the Party a potential coalition partner for Labour or National, notwithstanding the major parties' avowed distaste for such an arrangement. In an August TV debate with National's Don Brash, when asked about possible Labour-Maori Party talks, PM Clark swatted the party off by replying it was the "last cab in the rank." Brash more tactfully said that he couldn't see cooperation happening.

Earlier, at a July Diplomatic Club lunch in Wellington, Turia noted that the Maori Party had not offered itself as a coalition partner, nor would it. But, she added, if approached by one or more parties, it would put the issue of which party to vote for and under what terms (e.g. confidence and supply or a full coalition) to its voters. As noted earlier, however, Brash's August 29 speech has squashed, for now, speculation about National-Maori Party cooperation.

Long-Term Goals: More Maori Constituency Seats and More List Seats

12. (C) Echoing Turia, co-leader Pita Sharples told Consul General that the Maori Party was not going "hell for bent" to be in the Government right now. The question of coalitions does not loom large for the party. For the September election, it was trying to get the Maori voice
heard in Parliament and to stand staunch on the Treaty of Waitangi. If it succeeded in getting seven MPs in, this would have the desired impact and momentum. Then, the following year, the Party would undertake a national campaign to move every Maori from the general to the Maori rolls in order to increase the number of Maori constituency
seats. Thus, in a subsequent election, the Party could enjoy, for example, fourteen seats in addition to general electorate and list seats. It was with this long-term goal in mind that the Party had decided to contest the general electorates, go for the list vote and choose several non-Maori election candidates of European and Pacific Island descent. There is, Sharples declared, not much of a long-
term future for the Maori Party "if we are not inclusive and if we have just Maori sitting there-we must go for all of New Zealand."

Burnett

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