John Key and the Maori Party

15 November 2008

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National Party leader John Key's invitation to the Maori Party to join a National Party government has been seen as an act of political grace and wisdom.   The Maori Party's acceptance of his offer, on the other hand, has provoked surprise and criticism from the left, apparently based on the mistaken premise that the Maori Party is a party of ideology, which it is not.

Other parties, such as ACT and the Green Party, are basically ideological, by virtue of which fact they  can only go into alliance with the major party which is most closely aligned with their political programme - as things currently stand ACT must go with National and the Greens with Labour.   But other minor parties, such as United Future and ACT, have no strict ideology, and therefore can be as politically pragmatic, or opportunistic, as the circumstances allow.   Peter Dunne, leader of the United Future Party has cultivated the art of  pragmatism to the point that the only consistent element in his political career has been his policy of siding with the winning party, whether it be of the right or the left.   The Maori Party, created to uphold the interests of a particular ethnic group, is similarly able, or obliged, to eschew ideology in favour of political pragmatism.   Therefore it was entirely to be expected that the Maori Party would enter into an alliance with the National Party if such an alliance could be perceived to be in the interests of Maori.   Indeed, simply framing the question in terms of  "interests" (as opposed to ideals or moral obligations) is almost sufficient to predetermine the answer.    The obvious way to advance or protect one's material interests is to make accommodations and alliances with those who hold political power.   That is the pragmatic response, and that is the response which the Maori Party has delivered.

The problem with political pragmatism, however, is that it tends to become more and more closely identified with self-interest, and, with the passage of time self-interest takes a narrower orbit.  The interests of the constituency as a whole yield to the interests of the party, and the interests of the party as a whole yield to the interests of the party hierarchy.    That is the natural  fate of a party which exists to advance the interests of a particular social class or ethnic group; the only way to avoid such a fate is to adhere to a universal system of values which transcend class, ethnic or sectional interests.

The Maori Party has taken the pragmatic route of entering into a political accommodation with the National Party.    As an ethnic party, it really had no other option.   But in doing so it has had to turn its back upon one of its most inspiring innovations: the use of hui to take political decision making back to the grass roots, and thereby to establish a level of popular participation in the democratic process the like of which has not been seen in the New Zealand European electorates for the past half century.

Once the party had committed to holding hui to determine how it should involve with the government of John Key and the National Party, there were at least three options concerning who should have the right to participate in those hui.   The first, and most inclusive, option was to allow the participation of any person on the Maori electoral roll.   The second was to accept any person who voted for the Maori Party, and the third, least inclusive, option was to restrict participaton to members of the Maori Party.   The "problem" (or advantage) of the first option was that it would have given influence to Maori who had not supported the Maori Party.   The problem with the second option was that it would have been difficult to implement under a system of secret ballot.   (Another good reason for doing away with the secret ballot and making all voting transparent).

So it was perhaps not surprising that the party leadership settled for  the third, least inclusive, option.  Not only was participation restricted, but, in violation of the normal kaupapa, restrictions were placed on the time allowed for discussion and resolution.   Just as the Green Party had embarked on a spurious public consultative process over its predeterminined political support for the Labour government's Emissions Trading Scheme, so the Maori Party hui were designed to rubber stamp a decision to collaborate with the National Party which was already set in concrete.   In the process of forging an alliance with the National Party, the parliamentarians of the Maori Party were unwilling to trust in the judgement of the tangata as a whole.  Nor were they willing to trust in the normal  kaupapa of the hui by which the tangata reach their decisions.    By thus distancing itself from both the tangata and the kaupapa of Maoridom, the Maori Party is on track to becoming as alienated from its constituency as the European parties are from theirs.

John Key no doubt believes that the steps he has taken so far in relation to the Maori Party will enable him to successfully "manage" Maori issues, and thereby consolidate his political authority.   But in fact he has done nothing radical.   There is no substantial difference between John Key's approach to managing the Maori issue and the approach adopted by all preceding administrations, both National and Labour.    All have courted Maori politicians, many have done so with greater sagacity and understanding that John Key can bring to the task, and all have come unstuck because the fundamental conflict between Maori and European interests continually re-asserts itself within the context of an exploitative colonial political and economic system.   The only reasonable presumption is that National's "strategic alliance" with the Maori Party will have no enduring impact on the political landscape of New Zealand.