Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Maori Party never going to please all

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Tapu Misa writes that a minor partner would always have to swallow a few dead rats, but how many and how big?

Prime Minister John Key, with Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key, with Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Every election, there's talk in the Pacific community about how great it would be to have our very own party to represent "our" interests in Parliament.

I can never work up any enthusiasm for the idea.

Though I'm all for having strong Pacific voices in Parliament, a political party predicated on the assumption that people of the same ethnicity think alike seems doomed to failure.

I have enough trouble agreeing with my own family, let alone a group of people with whom I may have nothing but ethnicity in common.

Similarly, I've never thought it fair or realistic to expect one or two Pacific MPs to somehow represent all Pacific interests, assuming we could agree on what those were.

So I'm not surprised by the current ructions in the Maori Party.

The partnership between the Maori Party and National was supposed to herald a new, mana-enhancing era for Maori political representation.

But no one expected that it would be easy. Everyone knew the minor partner would have to swallow a few dead rats. The only questions were: how many and how big, whether all that compromising and polite disagreement would pay off, and how long it would take the Maori Party's most outspoken MP to become restless.

Longer than most expected, I suspect.

Hone Harawira's very public discomfort may be an irritant too many for his parliamentary colleagues, but it is entirely predictable.

It reflects not only the realities of a minor coalition partner in government, and the personalities of the players, but also the impossibility of being all things to all Maori.

As Pita Sharples says, Maori are many things (including conservative and well-heeled). Thus the Maori Party necessarily serves a very broad church, some of whom feel right at home in the coalition and some of whom would rather stick hot needles in their eyes.

When Harawira says the party needs to be clear about who its constituency is, he means it needs to side more strongly with poor, working class Maori who are bearing the brunt of the coalition's policies.

Harawira says the party has been too muted in its opposition to "the anti-worker, anti-beneficiary and anti-environment (and therefore anti-Maori) legislation that comes as a natural consequence of having a right-wing government".

But while urging his party to be bolder in defence of its struggling constituents may be consistent with the promise in its constitution to "promote a fair and just society" and "work for the elimination of poverty and injustice", it has understandably riled his colleagues, who have been at pains to point out that they care just as much about the plight of poor Maori.

At Waitangi last week, Sharples defended his party's efforts; it had lobbied for a minimum wage of $15, and for GST to be taken off healthy food. It had also fought losing battles over the Auckland seats, Tuhoe, the rise in GST, and the three strikes law, to name a few.

"Each time Tariana and I went to Cabinet, and fought hard against these policies. And each time we were unsuccessful."

Yet he insisted the party had achieved much "in our first term of government".

Among the gains, the review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act; recognition of the Maori flag; qualified approval of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the tobacco inquiry and the two tobacco bills; and Whanau Ora.

But are they enough? Supporters are divided.

Even the issue which unified Maoridom and gave birth to the Maori Party - Labour's hated 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act - is now splitting voters.

A recent Digipoll survey by Te Karere found that while a majority of Maori voters are against the new Marine and Coastal Area Bill that repeals the 2004 law, they were more evenly split on whether the Maori Party should vote for it: 30 per cent say yes, 32 per cent no.

Sharples has conceded that the bill isn't "all that we hoped for", but the party supports it "because it is simply better than the current law - it abolishes Crown title and it restores the right of Maori to take their claims to court. This was our promise to the people".

Despite the grumbles, the bill is a significant achievement. But it may not count against more pressing concerns at the flaxroots level - concerns which aren't confined to Maori, though they affect Maori disproportionately.

As Tai Tokerau voters told the Weekend Herald last week, they're more worried about high unemployment and the rising cost of living fuelled by the GST rise, both of which have gone up under the coalition's watch.

"I think the foreshore is irrelevant," said Natasha Kake-Harrison, of Hihi. "Everything is going up. Rent, power, gas. I feel it when I go shopping, you spend all your money on food."

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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