After copping grief in the media for refusing to do so, Richard Nixon finally agreed to meet with members of the newly-formed Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in late March, 1971. Shirley Chisholm, who would later stand for President, led a delegation of African-American lawmakers to the Oval Office, presenting Nixon with a detailed list of political demands on behalf of their communities.
Nixon ignored their pleas, of course, but not before adding the names of each attendee to his notorious "enemies list" – a stark representation of the threat posed to entrenched power structures of a unified Black voice inside the halls of Congress. For the half-century since, the CBC has grown sharply in stature and influence. Today, three of the top five Democratic Party leadership spots are held by African-Americans, and most expect Nancy Pelosi's eventual successor will become the first Black Speaker.
The CBC understands that mere representation is only part of the political equation, and that influence over policy and personnel is what ultimately makes it possible to deliver the goods for their communities. And they know they are more powerful as a collective than as individuals.
I urge the Labour Parliamentary Māori caucus to heed these lessons.
Labour is well placed to sweep the Māori seats and elevate record numbers of Māori into Parliament at the coming election. Their ability to influence policy outcomes will never have been greater, especially if Labour is able to govern alone. But this won't happen of its own accord – and, if it doesn't, Māori voters have shown in the past their loyalty to the party is far from unconditional. If Labour doesn't make considerable progress on issues confronting our people over the next term, we won't hesitate to take our votes elsewhere.
Labour's Māori MPs and candidates, many of whom I speak with regularly, know this dynamic better than most. Privately, they concede the past three years has seen only incremental improvement across many critical areas, from health to education, housing to criminal justice reform. They're getting the message on the campaign trail that, while the Government has earned the trust of most Māori for the time being, it's not an inexhaustible resource. Expectations for the second term are high. Patience will wear thin sooner than you may imagine.
The Māori caucus needs to emulate the CBC, and reinvent itself as a more assertive and sophisticated political grouping. They need to insist on more than just seats at the table, but demand senior portfolios with budgets to match. They should work on a menu of key policy goals to drive through Cabinet, and have the courage to speak up about them. Above all, they need to spend the next term focused on representing the interests of Māori to Labour, not the other way around.