Tactical Voting, Manaakitanga and the Northland By-Election

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Quite anxious about posting. Worried about the backlash. The thing is, I don’t consider tactical voting as inherently bad. I just think that some strategies appear inconsistent with tikanga Māori. In particular, the principle of manaakitanga. That principle might not be important to non-Māori electors, but it does, in my view, matter where the particular electorate involves a candidate and constituents committed to kaupapa Māori.

Note, I am not suggesting that I am an authority nor that I speak on behalf of all Māori electors. Rather, it is my personal analysis regarding my interpretation and how I have come to understand manaakitanga and the problems I see with tactical voting in this particular regard.

Before I get into the substance of my concern, its necessary for the purposes of transparency to outlay a couple of disclosures. Firstly, I am a Māori Party (MP) member, and secondly, as reported in the media the idea of strategic voting was discussed at the Strategy and Executive levels of the MP with regard to the Te Tai Tokerau seat during the 2014 Election. Of note, views on strategic voting within the MP groups with whom I have had close contact with anyway,  is not settled. Many, like myself, were and remain strongly opposed to the idea of pulling a candidate just because polling is unfavourable. The concern revolves around the stripping of the candidates mana as a result of such a process. (I’d go as far as saying this is similarly true with standing a candidate but not allowing or perhaps discouraging them from seeking a candidate vote).

In brief, manaakitanga is about behaving in a way that is uplifting and enhances the mana of others. It is about positive role modelling and preserving the integrity of individuals, whānau, hapū, iwi and the wider community. (I am mindful that the concept can and does change within and between whānau, hapū and iwi, however, these characteristics seem to be widely accepted).

So I’m not convinced that the disavowal of an elected candidate, in this case, Willow-Jean Prime who has expressed a strong desire and genuine commitment to seek the electorate vote is in anyway mana enhancing or positive role modeling. To add insult to injury, encouraging people to vote for her rival candidate Winston Peters who has known sexist, bigoted and racist traits (recalling his joke at the expense of the Chinese) and has expressed a clear aversion to Te Tiriti o Waitangi reflects a lack of respect for the integrity and mana of Prime. It is essentially a strategy of two facing Prime by claiming on the one hand that she is the best candidate but undermining that message by getting people to not vote for her and to vote for Peters which is inconsistent with what manaakitanga involves.

For clarity, electors who were already going to vote for Peters are not participating in this mana stripping exercise. Additionally, if a candidate voluntarily revokes their commitment to seek the electorate vote then the strategy can arguably be said to not breach the principle. Although, there would remain issues regarding whether whānau, hapū, iwi and wider community see this kind of strategy as an attack on their integrity and mana.

The prevailing narrative is that a vote for Prime is essentially a wasted vote or a vote for National. But it’s not. That story is moral blackmail. It attempts to alienate any person who exercises their democratic right to vote for the candidate that they believe will best represent their interests and the interests of their electorate. This particular kind of tactical voting insists that the personal preferences of electors and the mana of candidates be set aside for the ‘greater good’ of the left. For Māori electors, it asks or rather demands that Māori identify as left first and only thereafter as Māori.

There is indeed a place for tactical voting provided it isn’t coupled with coercion. Where people aren’t induced to vote in a particular way due to fear of exclusion or public condemnation. Where people aren’t morally blackmailed into taking a particular position. And where campaigns and candidates aren’t undermined in a way that is mana stripping.

Some argue that this strategy is not coercive but instead educational. I’m still unconvinced by this argument too. The presumption is that all the strategy does is propose an option for voters together with counter-scenarios to let them make a choice. Yet, this is most often coupled with the above narrative and has led to verbal assaults on the non-compliant, at least in online forums. Moreover, it delivers information in a way designed to persuade a voter to conform rather than to impart knowledge. Some may not see the problem with that. That’s their prerogative. But when a person refuses to conform and is then castigated by their supposed left wing allies for daring to have an alternative view, it cannot pretend to be educational.  And given the extent of manipulation we as individuals are already subjected to, I find it alarming that many of these people would criticise media manipulation while engaging in the same tactics.

The awful rhetoric (coming from some very active voices) that followed the left bloc loss at the 2014 election was that everyone who didn’t vote according to a particular strategy guide were whollly responsible for National’s win, must hate people, are selfish and greedy, and lack intelligence – some suggested even that some shouldn’t have bothered voting at all [the irony given the push was to attract the elusive missing million]. So instead of holding up the principle of democracy, it became a game of ‘democracy on our terms only’. Free choice erased. Manaakitanga not even a feature of the story. Camaraderie existing only in conformity, under a strategy of manipulation.