The Labour Party has a problem with Maori aspirations for self-determination.

Although the party is in many ways highly sympathetic towards some aspects of tino rangatiratanga, it also has problems with some of the more separatist or non-state policies involved in advancing this cause.

And this week we've seen this tension in Labour's ambiguous and fraught positioning on charter schools, and the idea of separate Maori prisons.

The best overall summary of this is Vernon Small's Labour and Little are on the horns of a dilemma over Maori issues. Small discusses the debate about Labour having no Maori candidates in the top 15 of its party list, and looks at the difficulties that the party leadership has had in dealing with Maori demands for charter schools and more culturally-appropriate penal systems.

Small explains that the dilemma Andrew Little and other Labour MPs find themselves in, is trying to simultaneously satisfy different voter constituencies: "It's a familiar dilemma for Labour with echoes that go back to the foreshore and seabed debate and the short lived 'Closing the Gaps' programme in Helen Clark's first term. How do you balance specific Maori concerns - including Maori-specific solutions - while looking over your shoulder at the reaction of your other core constituents ... and a pursuing Winston Peters? Given Little's sweeping and principled stance about the ubiquitous role of Maori, how does he achieve his high-flying vision without - as Maori co-leader Marama Fox puts it - muzzling his own MPs? You have to ask whether he is being too timid or is in thrall to nightmares from the Clark years and the advantage National took of divisive issues."

And for a very interesting discussion of these issues, listen to commentators Hirini Kaa and Scott Campbell's five-minute interview with Guyon Espiner: Is Labour running in to trouble with Maori voters?. In this, Campbell warns that "if Labour doesn't watch out, then they will lose those Maori seats to the Maori Party, and they'll lose the Maori vote to New Zealand First".

Of course, the political survival of Labour's Maori-seat MPs now depends upon them winning their seats, following their decision not to stand on the party list.

While ideally all MPs would consider the wider interests of the party, the reality is when you are fighting for your own personal political survival this is likely to take priority. Therefore, we are likely to see more independent and robust challenges from MPs such as Kelvin Davis and Peeni Henare, designed to directly appeal to Maori-seat voters.

While only having to appeal to those voters, in those seats, gives Labour's Maori seat MPs freedom to counter the Maori and Mana parties, it also creates a huge headache for Labour's list vote which is primarily aimed at voters swinging between Labour and National - a very different constituency indeed.

Labour's Charter schools dilemma

Labour has been staunchly opposed to the Government's charter schools experiment. Yet in light of an education system that has failed Maori for decades, a large number of Maori leaders and voters are understandably much more sympathetic to the idea of non-state schools being established that are allowed to use alternative models of education and operations.

Willie Jackson has not only championed the concept of charter schools, but has been involved in establishing and running one. His wife, Tania Rangiheuea, is the principal of Te Kura Maori o Waatea in Auckland, which is operated by Jackson's Manukau Urban Maori Authority. And Jackson has often sung the praises of such charter schools, which criticising Labour's opposition to them - such as in his opinion piece last year, in which he said the "opposition's stance on partnership schools won't get a pass mark from me. And as far as Maori are concerned, Labour's Education spokesman Chris Hipkins' Private Members Bill to scrap partnership schools rates an E."

Therefore, when Andrew Little recruited Jackson as a candidate and made him the Maori seats campaigner, there was always going to be a tension on charter schools that needed to be resolved or explained.

And it was hardly surprising that Jackson spoke so strongly about the issue on TVNZ's Q+A last weekend - watch: The Labour Party's Maori campaign plan. In this interview, Jackson - as well as fast-rising new candidate Kiri Allan - pushes a line that Labour is simply going to re-name or re-brand existing charter schools rather than get rid of them. This clearly went against Labour's policy, and the leader had to go on RNZ earlier this week in an attempt to clear things up that probably made things worse - see: Labour committed to anti-charter school policy - Little. Vernon Small described this as a "dreadful Morning Report interview on charter schools where he just sounded evasive".

And then Labour MP Peeni Henare was reported as coming to the aid of Jackson, saying "not all charter schools should be shut down under a Labour government" - see Jane Patterson's Labour MP backs Jackson on charter schools.

For more on the debate, see Lynn Grieveson's A rough school day for Labour.

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Labour's Maori prison dilemma

The next self-determination issue to trouble Labour this week was the idea - raised the previous week by former Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples - that a separate Maori prison might be established - see RNZ's Sharples calls for Maori-only prisons.

Then Labour's Corrections spokesperson Kelvin Davis "proposed converting Ngawha Prison in Northland into a Maori-run prison, as a way of tackling the disproportionately high imprisonment rate of Maori. The prison would not be limited to Maori offenders, but would be run according to tikanga Maori values" - see the Herald's Separate Maori prison not Labour policy: Little.

The same article quotes Labour's former law and order spokesman Clayton Cosgrove saying the idea was "mind-boggling", and pointing out how he saw the proposal as a problem: "Your wife gets raped by a Pakeha, and he goes to the clink, the prison. Your wife gets raped by a Maori person, and he goes off and goes flatting with his mates in some sort of strange separatist concept."

As leader, Andrew Little had to walk the line between carefully welcoming Davis raising the innovative idea, while quickly pointing out that it wasn't Labour policy - see TVNZ's Andrew Little not ruling out 'radical' idea of running a prison on Maori values: 'Whatever we're doing now is wrong'. The Herald reported: "Asked whether he was happy with a member of his front bench promoting non-Labour policy in election year, Little said he supported his MPs looking at fresh and creative ideas."

Similarly, RNZ's Craig McCulloch reported the Labour leader dancing carefully around the issue: "Little suggested it was sometimes important to have a public debate before forming official policy. 'I'm glad that we've got an MP... coming up with creative ideas, new ideas, fresh approaches. That's important.' Asked whether it could become official policy before the election, Mr Little said the party was at the 'tail end' of its policy formation and the idea was not there" - see: Maori Party backs Maori-run prisons as 'inevitable'.

The same article reported another Labour MP, Adrian Rurawhe, was keen for the policy to be adopted by his party, saying "It's totally in line with how staff in Maori focus units already operate. So lifting it to another level would have really good outcomes."

The left's problem with Maori sovereignty

It's clear from the above policy debates and public statements that Andrew Little and Labour face a difficult task in trying to satisfy different constituencies. They want to get across to Maori that they are sympathetic to greater devolution to Maori of services to Maori. But the party also doesn't want to alarm other voters with the idea that Labour is supporting some sort of "radical separatist agenda".

But perhaps the dilemma runs deeper than pragmatic election messages. Maybe it's a core ideological problem in Labour - or the wider political left - that opposes the very nature of Maori self-determination. This is an idea expressed strongly today by rightwing NBR columnist Matthew Hooton in a piece provocatively titled "Labour likes its Maori dumb and docile".

Hooton salutes Labour's Maori dissidents for their progressive thinking: "Kelvin Davis, for example, knows that a prison system imported from 19th century England can never be sufficiently reformed to reduce Maori recidivism and that other approaches need to be tried. Similarly, even Willie Jackson, who sent his own children first to a private kura kaupapa Maori to learn their language and tikanga and then to King's College to ensure they gained from exposure to that worldview, understands that no amount of extra funding and teacher union power will make South Auckland's state schools the right answer for every child."

Hooton sees greater sovereignty for Maori as a natural fit with rightwing neoliberalism, and not with leftwing collectivism (or "statism"): "This is not an experience which inclines people to think that their destiny lies in the authority and institutions of the state. It was leaders in Maori society and the liberal free-market wing of the National Party - dare we call them the neoliberals? - who first saw the obvious synergies between their worldviews. Whatever else it includes, a Treaty of Waitangi settlement always involves some degree of privatisation of state assets. Every new kura kaupapa Maori promotes the concept of parental choice and challenges the militant once-size-fits-all dogmas of the teacher unions. Whanau ora is an assertion that familial love and responsibility will always be more powerful than the institutions of the state."

Hooton argues that, in contrast, "The left-wing response to Maori asserting tino rangatiratanga has been to establish parallel governance structures within the European-modelled institutions that they continue to insist against a century of evidence can deliver everyone a better world. What will never be allowed within the Labour worldview is for Maori or anyone else to speak out that they might want to be empowered to act more independently of the state. This inability of successive Labour leaders to comprehend that many Maori don't support the further expansion of the colonial state is at the heart of the slow unravelling of their relationship. Labour still has strong support among Maori spiritually and materially impoverished by colonisation, welfarism, state housing, alcoholism, drug use and North England unionism but those Maori with another vision for the future continue to drift away."

An alternative explanation for Labour's weakening ties with Maori - and Pasifika - voters is put in Chris Trotter's column this week reporting on the South Auckland launch of a new activist campaign - see: Yes We CAN? Labour launches its Community Action Network.

In this Trotter reports that there is now a real divorce between the type of people running Labour and the poorer ethnic voters sought by the party: "Because, actually, the real Labour Party, the party that makes the policies and orders the priorities, isn't anything like the people of South Auckland. Where the people of Otara are devout Christians, the Labour leadership are (mostly) atheists. Where the people of Mangere are convinced (some might say militant) social conservatives, the Labour leadership are aggressive social liberals. Where the people of Manukau East are clearly and unequivocally members of the working-class, the Labour leadership are all, and very obviously, members of the professional and managerial class. I guess that's why the appeals of Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little were received with warm, rather than fervent, applause."

Finally, commenting on this weekend's Labour congress, Richard Harman also draws attention to ongoing problems for Andrew Little, especially in terms of Maori issues: "The Willie Jackson candidacy continues to hang over his leadership. Politik understands that it was Little's own decision to appeal to the party's List Moderating Committee to review Jackson's list position even though the party rules are quite explicit that the Committee's decisions may not be appealed. What has been passed over in much of the commentary on this is while the Committee rejected his appeal, it consisted of the party's New Zealand Council plus three caucus representatives. That is a serious rebuff to the Leader. Add to that the confusion over Jackson's charter school and Labour's policy and Little's interview on RNZ's 'Morning Report' and the party will be looking for a big performance from him this weekend" - see: Weekend test for English and Little.