John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: So much for Maori sovereignty

Voters spurning the prospect of pivotal power

Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples remain highly respected despite the poor response to the efforts of the Maori Party, which is now likely to be co-led by Te Ururoa Flavell. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples remain highly respected despite the poor response to the efforts of the Maori Party, which is now likely to be co-led by Te Ururoa Flavell. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Democracy doesn't always follow the script that romantics write for it. Liberal, secular Egyptians are now celebrating a military coup that has removed their first elected government. In this country a hopeful step in Maori leadership has failed.

To pretend otherwise after last weekend's byelection would be as futile as the denial that Arab democracies want Islamic rule. It is harder to say what Maori democracy wants except that it clearly doesn't want a Maori party in a National Government.

That is a lesson to me and anyone else who imagined that being a member of an indigenous minority was a more powerful identity than a mainstream affiliation.

Academics and others who argue - quite rightly I think - that empowerment is the only sure way to fix social problems, will look for other explanations for the Maori Party's demise. They will blame National's asset sales and high Maori unemployment, and the Maori Party's sacking of Hone Harawira and a leadership rift within a caucus of three.

But those are mere symptoms of the fact that Maori voters have turned out to have much the same interests and priorities as Labour, and those few who want a distinctive voice in politics are content that it continue to be one of protest.

No individual can really know the will of a people. When a good Maori Party candidate finished third last Saturday, behind a Mana flag carrier best described as colourful, Tariana Turia said: "Our people need to decide whether they want to continue a life of activism on the sidelines or [vote for] someone actually progressing their issues."

She has been saying that for years. Her people have made the decision. She must be as surprised as I am.

Failure is the wrong word. The party has been led by two of the most respected Maori in modern times and their standing seems hardly diminished by the poor response to their political efforts.

Their people are not only spurning the party at elections, they are no longer choosing to be on the Maori electoral roll in increasing numbers. The response to the latest post-Census enrolment drive suggests something even more important is happening.

The Maori Party was a test of an idea that is frightening to non-Maori and maybe, it turns out, to Maori too. It has been called sovereignty, self-determination, tino rangatiratanga, separatism to its opponents. I call it nationalism.

It seems to me an elementary need of human nature to know there is a "nation" somewhere in the world where a person's ethnic identity is strong and self-asserting. If that place has been colonised by other people whose descendants are in the majority and regard the country no less as their own, both national needs have to be satisfied.

I think it would be possible to accommodate both, especially with a Treaty that is hallowed and an electoral system that forces a governing party to find partners. But that is academic now.

The Maori Party experiment has confirmed mainstream political thinking. If the left and right wings of the mainstream agree on anything, it is that ethnic identity is not very important. The left is more interested in ethnicity than the right but only to the extent that the ethnic group can be affiliated to the class struggle. Leftist writers and governments have been the most assiduous in denying the validity of ethnic national aspirations that might distract or divide the oppressed.

The right holds there is not much meaning in ethnic or class distinctions, that a nation consists of individuals with equal rights and essentially similar aspirations.

Both sides can take comfort from recent experience. Those Maori who vote in their own electorates (just 36 per cent in Ikaroa-Rawhiti last Saturday) are staying with Labour, but not as many are registering on the Maori roll.

Just as many have gone the other way in the latest enrolment, identifying with the general electorate. Maori are making these decisions in full knowledge of how close the Maori Party has come to pivotal bargaining power. Elections have not yet left the party in a position to decide which of major parties will govern, but sooner or later that was bound to happen. Quite likely next year.

With the results of each election and byelection it is becoming more clear that Maori voters do not want that to happen. Perhaps they feel they have come far enough with a combination of effort inside Labour and outside on protest lines.

Protest has achieved a great deal of recognition for Maori rights and culture over the past 50 years. But it is not sovereignty, not self-determination. It is not pride, not dignified. It can achieve concessions but not respect.

Protest has used the rhetoric of sovereignty but it won't work any more. We are all wiser now.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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