Te Ururoa Flavell, Tariana Turia and Marama Fox, 5 October 2014 at the signing of the Relationship Accord with the National Party
[Image sourced from: Māori Party FB page]
An inescapable feature of election debates was the Māori Party’s relationship accord with the National Party and the negative manner in which that relationship is predominantly received particularly by those self-identifying as “the Left”.
There is a common conception that the relationship accord was responsible for the near death of the Māori Party. I thought this too. I’m no longer convinced this is true, rather that the erosion of support factored down to an inability or perhaps even an unwillingness to demonstrate the benefits of that relationship to Māori in the face of relentless opposition from the Left and its support networks, and a lack of resources to support enduring engagement with Māori.
As we know, despite speculation that the Māori Party would not exist post-election, Te Ururoa Flavell retained the Waiariki seat and with special votes now counted Marama Fox joins him as the Party’s first ever list MP highlighting the importance of the Party vote for micro-parties.
The special votes did something else too – they deprived National an outright majority. As a result this had some Māori Party members questioning whether the Māori Party were in a more favourable position post-specials to negotiate bigger gains regarding the invitation to pursue another relationship accord. While it is good news that we do not have a party with an outright majority, in my view, it didn’t change the Māori Party’s negotiating position – unless there is legislation that National want to pass that both ACT and United Future (UF) would not support. In all honesty, I can’t imagine any laws that National would want enacted that only the Māori Party would support. I mean unless it were some policy that supported e.g. affirmative action, which is not something I imagine National would pursue, at least on its own account. Alternatively, the Māori party and either or both ACT or UF might also be in a position to jointly oppose proposed legislation by National (would be rare, although UF and the Māori Party did jointly oppose the RMA last term to prevent it getting to the house).
As with the previous two terms, National are in the same position – they have the numbers without the Māori Party to form a government and to pass legislation, afterall the likelihood of ACT voting against National is incredibly unlikely especially given they are only there because Key endorsed their Epsom candidate, but as some have suggested it is rare that National would want to pass legislation on a bare majority, although we did see the passage of both the MOM and GCSB Acts by bare majority.
Today the Party officially signed the relationship accord agreement. A copy is available here.
In planning for the 2017 election, the Party will need to ensure it can point to achievements in the accord and illustrate where it has acted independently for Māori. An implication is that unlike previous agreements, the terms are broader so it will be difficult to point to specific targets as having been met.
As advised during the election campaign the Māori Party indicated that they would embark on post-election consultation hui with their members and supporters following meetings with National about the kinds of things that were up for negotiation.
In just under a week, the Party have concluded around 30 nationwide hui, conference calls, and informal/cottage meetings, as well as online discussions on Loomio, email submissions, and written submissions via the Party website. The underlying issue was essentially whether the gains negotiated through a relationship accord outweighed the trade offs of continuing that relationship and if members were keen to continue the relationship what kinds of things did they deem as priority in any agreement.
On 28 September 2014, I attended the first hui held in Otautahi. The turnout was relatively small (I estimate about 30-40 people), which was likely the result of the short timeframe within which the party had to promote the hui venue. Something that members across the board picked up on as an area for review and improvement.
To my surprise there was an overwhelming consensus to continue a relationship accord with the National Party, although this was not without some initial reservations. Some expressed what seemed like objections in stating their concerns about the shifting of Māori support to the Labour Party and the hand that the Party’s relationship accord with National might have played in that shift. Additionally, there were also concerns raised over how any controversial decisions National make, might reflect on the Party by association. The solution offered and accepted by general consensus was for Fox to remain outside the Executive branch to ensure that the Party had an independent voice to challenge National where the Party believed it to be acting against the interests of Māori.
This was considered especially important if Flavell were to accept the Ministerial position/s offered as he would be constrained in his ability to speak against the government with respect to his portfolio’s because he’d be bound by collective responsibility – which has the unfortunate consequence of feeding the negative perception that the “Māori Party are the National Party”.
Flavell was incredibly open about the risks and limitations of being supported into a Ministerial role but the general consensus was to back him so that he could take forward the work begun over the past six years. Part of the discussion for this particular issue included changing the name from Minister of Māori Affairs to Minister of Māori Development. The idea behind this was to support the Party’s ongoing commitment to rangatiratanga by helping Māori communities to become self-reliant and to determine their own solutions and strategies to social, cultural, economic and regional development.
Some other discussion points included (not an exhaustive list) whether there were any bottom lines, how any agreement might affect the party’s future prospects, what issues were to be prioritised, ensuring the retention of the Māori seats, and what the party can do going forward to improve engagement across a range of issues, including to increase support for the Party.
I was impressed with the outward look of the hui – insisting whānau were the cornerstone of any discussions and decisions, acknowledging some hard truths about where improvements or changes were required and voicing those concerns and issues openly. I wasnt sure how collaborative or participatory the consultation would be and I was happy to find it was direct democracy in action: everyone gets a say, everyone votes, and any dissent is respectfully given, received, discussed, and resolved and/or noted.
In saying that, an observation I’ve made more generally (that is not unique to the Māori Party by the way) is that in social media or mainstream media forums there is a tendency to look inwards and a reluctance at times to accept hard truths. I’ve also seen many comment on the defensiveness of the Party’s supporters, which were often true but I also wouldn’t consider it unique to Māori Party supporters either. Often responses are defensive because attacks are framed as ‘genuine concern’ which can come across as patronising for the recipient of such comments. However, a limitation in responding defensively is that it operates as a barrier to engagement so communication strategies will need to play a key role in garnering support for the party going forward.
But I have spent the last few months engaging with a wide range of Māori Party members and supporters, and I have come to appreciate the place from where some of that defensiveness derives: some have supported and nurtured the Party from its inception, many have worked tirelessly out of aroha for the kaupapa, yet they are persistently disparaged by those aligned with other parties, as if their contributions are meaningless. At the hui, I listened to those long time supporters and it occurred to me that the majority of those claiming that the Māori Party must cease all relationships with National to rebuild their support base, actively support other parties but want to determine for these members how this party should proceed. Why does this matter? Because even if the Party had rejected a relationship accord, there is no guarantee that those same critics would return their support to the Māori Party or encourage others to do so.
Interestingly, from the discussions it was clear that if the Party were in a position in which they held the balance of power, the outcome would certainly have not been so clear cut. But members/supporters were deliberating on the reality – that what we have is a National led government and not the hypothetical balance of power.
What came across strongly in all the discussions though is that members do not identify as left or right. It’s not just rhetoric emanating from the leadership, it is something that members themselves strongly believe – that they are kaupapa Māori. And while some may have trouble grasping that idea of not being left/right/centre this is part of the indigenous struggle: to determine our identities for ourselves.
As a new-ish member, those I’ve interacted with will know that I don’t agree with all the decisions that the Party have made (in the past) or may make (in the future), and at times I’ve probably been a bit of a pest! But what I have learnt is that consensus is possible even where there are disagreements and this is made possible through the memberships commitment to the Party’s kaupapa – kotahitanga and manaakitanga which in my experience is strongly practiced among its members and supporters. Hopefully, over the next three years, this can be more widely translated into the public arena.