Fittingly, New Zealand's political year always begins with formalities on marae, first at Ratana, then at Waitangi. The precedence given to Ratana seems especially appropriate now because Maori voters have largely returned to the Labour Party after their experiment with independent representation. The Maori Party, which won five of the seven Maori seats at its peak, retained just one at the last election. It steadily lost support after entering a governing arrangement with National. The party and its supporters would have much preferred it to be in a Labour-led government, which underlines the fact that a mainstream socio-economic alignment has proved more important than an independent voice.
Labour is not saying much about this in public, which is not surprising, for the spirit of independence will not have disappeared entirely. What is more surprising is that Labour does not appear to be giving much thought to providing even a quasi-independent voice for Maori within a Labour-led government. If it is giving any thought to this, we would surely have heard about it this week when party leaders made their annual pilgrimage to the place where Michael Joseph Savage made Labour's enduring pact with the Ratana Church.
Andrew Little, who had called it a "beauty parade", spoke vaguely of the election result as an "awesome responsibility" and said he intended "building a meaningful relationship" but the hosts had a right to expect more developed proposals for providing a more distinctive place for Maori in the Labour Party and a Labour Government. The neglect of this need may be the reason Labour has lost the distinctive welcome at Ratana that it was accorded in the past. On Monday all parties walked on to the marae at the same time.
Part of the problem for Labour may be that parliamentary representation is not as powerful in Maori affairs as it is in government generally. Iwi leaders and their forums regard themselves as the rightful Treaty partners, as they were quick to remind John Key when he invited the Maori Party into his Government in 2008. The Maori Party has not contested the pre-eminence of iwi leadership and sees an important part of its role to be keeping doors open between iwi authorities and ministers.
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The political role of the Ratana Church in politics has always appeared to be limited to the endorsement of candidates for the Maori seats. After its pact with Labour, candidates with the dual endorsement of the party and the church won the Maori seats with thumping majorities for the next 60 years. Few of the MPs made any impact outside Maori affairs and the seats were ripe for plucking by new parties, New Zealand First in the 1990s and the Maori Party more recently. Neither has held on to them in government with National.
Labour could be forgiven some complacency but it cannot expect an organised Maori presence to be less visible in the next government than it has been in this one. That voice might not be a distinct party but it needs to play a forceful role in public if the spirit of partnership is to make progress.
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