Te Pāti Māori: Kingmaker or Labour’s albatross?

Graham Adams, Contributing Writer

18 May 2023

Graham Adams Common Room

Hipkins will not welcome renewed debate on democracy and co-governance in the election run-up.

Chris Hipkins must be fast realising that with friends like Te Pāti Māori he really doesn’t need enemies. In fact, the strong possibility Labour will require its support to form a government is looking like a real threat to its chances of re-election in October.

When Chris Luxon last week ruled out coming to an arrangement with Te Pāti Māori in post-election negotiations it lost its crown as “kingmaker” — although some journalists persist in calling it that. Mostly it will now be seen as tied to the Labour-Greens bloc on the left.

After Luxon had drawn a line in the sand — and dubbed a union of Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori a “coalition of chaos” — Hipkins felt moved to assert his own authority by warning Te Pāti Māori not to get too far ahead of itself in issuing “bottom lines” as conditions for its co-operation. Its demands so far have included some sort of wealth tax, the removal of GST from food, and withdrawing from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

In an effort to reassure voters that the tail wouldn’t be allowed to wag the dog too vigorously, Hipkins said Labour would release its own “bottom lines” before October “because, ultimately, the larger parties do need to be able to implement the commitments that they campaign on”. He reiterated the point at this week’s post-Cabinet press conference: “It may well be, as we get closer to the election, that there are some areas where we don’t agree with [Te Pāti Māori], where there are things that we take off the table.”

Te Pāti Māori’s co-leader Rawiri Waititi, predictably, didn’t take kindly to being told his party should “be careful” with its non-negotiable policies. He described it as “oppression”, and warned the Prime Minister: “You don’t tell indigenous peoples what our bottom lines are.”

Hipkins’ instructions to Te Pāti Māori to play nice were bound to backfire. It’s simply not in its DNA as a revolutionary party to kowtow to anyone. In fact, its electoral purposes may be best served by continuing to show just how contemptuous it is of the conventional political hierarchy. Chances are that snaffling a government minister to its ranks in the form of Meka Whaitiri was just an opening move. Who knows what other disruptive tactics it has up its sleeve?

One area in which it may create serious problems for Labour is co-governance. The point of Hipkins rejigging Three Waters in April to expand the number of regional water entities from four to 10 was to neutralise the issue as an election topic by making it look as if the government had responded to the public’s objections — even while leaving the co-governance provisions intact and arguing the term had been misapplied.

The tactic seems to have worked so far. National and Act have gone quiet on Three Waters, as have the media. However, Te Pāti Māori is unlikely to allow the issue to be buried for long. Last week, its president, John Tamihere, said he wanted to have a proper discussion over co-governance, particularly regarding Three Waters. Reviving such a discussion would give National and Act a welcome opening to pitch in.

Discussion of co-governance leads quickly, of course, to its implications for democracy — and in particular how sacred the principle of “one person, one vote of equal value” is to New Zealanders. Equal suffrage has been one of the nation’s most cherished achievements since women were given the vote in 1893 but Te Pāti Māori doesn’t share that enthusiasm.

In April last year, Waititi made it clear that the sort of co-governance he favoured was embodied in the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill, which would have allowed 21,700 voters on the Māori roll to elect three ward councillors while 55,600 voters on the general roll would also elect three ward councillors. Waititi said: “Rotorua’s electoral bill is brave and progressive. This is an exciting opportunity for our country to learn from Te Arawa [iwi]. This is the sort of equality of governance that our tipuna signed up for when they gave consent to Pākehā coming here.”

This despite the fact that the far greater weight of a vote available to someone on the Māori roll than that of a vote on the general roll would have been inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. As Attorney-General David Parker said in belatedly quashing this attempt to “tweak” democracy: “I have concluded the bill appears to limit the right to be free from discrimination” and “cannot be justified”.

Last May, Waititi and his fellow co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, made their disdain for equal suffrage explicit. Speaking with Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q&A, Waititi declared that democracy in the sense of one person, one vote of equal value was a colonial construct that “belongs to a Westernised system. The system that does belong to us is mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga.”

“[Democracy] is the tyranny of the majority,” he said. “Minority groups like Māori, like rainbow groups, disabled communities, have all felt the wrath of democracy — the tyranny of the majority. It works against what mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga is and what Te Tiriti actually promised.”

When Tame asked: “So less than 20 per cent of all the people in Aotearoa will have enshrined in law representation of 50 per cent?” both co-leaders thought that was perfectly reasonable and just. In fact, Ngarewa-Packer seemed slightly bemused that he would even ask. As she put it: “It’s already enshrined in Te Tiriti, Jack. It already exists… Mana motuhake is that 50:50 [split].”

The problem for Labour is that its own position is hard to distinguish in important respects from that of Te Pāti Māori. Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson has similarly argued that, “Democracy has changed… we’re in a consensus-type democracy now. This is a democracy now where you take into account the needs of people, the diverse needs, the minority needs… It’s not the tyranny of the majority anymore… that’s what co-management and co-governance is about.”

Nevertheless, Labour understands how explosive these issues are in an election year, and won’t welcome them featuring prominently in campaign debates. That may, of course, make them all the more irresistible for Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer to raise.

Last week, Luxon explained that the reason National wouldn’t work with Te Pāti Māori was because their basic values were incompatible. “We believe in very different things. They believe in a separate Parliament, they believe in the co-governance of public services and they have a much more separatist agenda, and that is just something… we’re not aligned with. National believes New Zealand is one country with one standard of citizenship — meaning one person, one vote.”

Waititi dismissed Luxon’s statement as race-baiting and argued that New Zealand’s democracy doesn’t operate on a one-vote, one-person basis anyway: “It’s dog-whistling because it’s not one person, one vote. It’s one person, two votes — so you get a vote for a candidate and you get a vote for a party. Maybe somebody should give civics education to Chris Luxon and his mates.”

In fact, Waititi appears to be the one in need of better civics education. Under MMP, everyone has one vote to decide who becomes their electorate representative and another vote that decides in what proportions political parties make up Parliament. Each category maintains the principle of “one person, one vote of equal value”.

Perhaps signalling just how keen Labour is to not be drawn into a debate about democracy, Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni echoed Waititi’s opinion of Luxon’s views: ”Oh yeah, that is totally dog-whistling.”

Hipkins is in favour of Māori having disproportionate representation himself, although — like his predecessor Jacinda Ardern — he’s loath to admit that it undermines democracy. Quizzed in March about iwi being represented in disproportionate numbers on the Regional Representative Groups in Three Waters that will oversee strategy, Hipkins, against reason, said, “Do I think the Three Waters model is democratic? Yes, I do think it is democratic.”

On Q&A earlier this month, in an effort to distinguish Labour from Te Pāti Māori, Willie Jackson painted his party as reformers and Te Pāti Māori as radicals. He argued Labour was willing to help Maori increase their influence via “incremental change” but that Te Pāti Māori would chafe at that pace if they were part of a government. Labour, Jackson said, knew how to work within the system, and he implied Te Pāti Māori were hotheads, while Labour was a safe and steady pair of hands. However, he had no objection to them wanting to have a separate Māori Parliament or to own water. In fact, he applauded their vaulting ambition “to own everything” and not being willing to stop at co-governance.

The ownership of water is possibly the most explosive topic of all — and one that Hipkins will fervently hope doesn’t become part of the election campaign debate either. However, he may be entirely out of luck on that count too. Last Friday in an interview, John Tamihere posed questions in relation to Three Waters and co-governance: “How did the Pākehā get in the room? How did they get 50 per cent of an asset we own 100 per cent of?”

He explained the point of his questions by saying he wanted a proper conversation about water rights, “as opposed to people thinking it is a bad thing to have co-governance”.

In a cosy chat on Waatea News last month in his role as a talkback host, Tamihere spoke to Tuku Morgan — a former president of Te Pāti Māori and the chairman of the Waikato-based Tainui iwi — about the future of freshwater. Tamihere once again stated his position clearly: “We own the water.”

Morgan agreed: “Clearly, that’s the next issue to be addressed… The ownership of water is probably the most important issue of our time… As we settle Three Waters and work with the Crown to manage waterways and get certainty and confidence going forward, then we’ll push on with the most important issue to face Maoridom — the ownership of water.”

For Tamihere and Morgan, Three Waters is just a way station towards full ownership of water — which Tamihere suggested should soon include charging electricity generators a levy for using it. If anything will provoke voter alarm, it will be the prospect of skyrocketing electricity bills.

Morgan’s comments about Three Waters and working “with the Crown to manage waterways” are revealing. Hipkins has insisted that the concept of co-governance in Three Waters was always a chimera because the co-governed Regional Representative Groups had no actual governance function. He claimed they were simply advisory boards that select a board to govern the water services entities. Morgan — who chairs the northern Three Waters iwi body across Northland and Auckland — sees it differently. To him, Three Waters means co-governance not only at the level of strategic oversight but also as part of water management at the operational level.

He also made it clear his objection to people continuing to hide behind “this tyranny of the majority, this Pākehā democracy nonsense” and minimising “the significance of the Treaty”.

A fiery debate around democracy, Three Waters and co-governance before the election would be exceedingly difficult for Labour and one it would much prefer to avoid. But it’s hard to see Te Pāti Māori keeping quiet to please Hipkins or his colleagues and for Labour not to be drawn into it. As Waititi told Newshub Nation: “We will continue to be the Māori Party that everyone expects. We are challenging the status quo… We will continue to push for constitutional transformation. That’s our goal.”

A persistent problem for Hipkins this election season will be trust. Labour never openly campaigned in 2020 on implementing its extensive co-governance programme — in areas ranging from health and education to the conservation estate and local government. How then will it convince voters it won’t adopt Te Pāti Māori policies after the election as the price of its support — including making Treaty settlements no longer “full and final” and Waitangi Tribunal recommendations binding on the Crown?

Five months before the election, a clear choice is opening up between a left-of-centre group of Labour, Greens and Te Pāti Māori and a right-of-centre group of National and Act.

Anyone who believes firmly that equal suffrage is an essential part of a multi-ethnic, liberal democracy will find it difficult to vote for the coalition shaping up on the left while those who think democracy based on one person, one vote is no longer viable as a political system and would prefer a state in which ancestry confers special political and civil rights will vote accordingly.

The stakes for New Zealand’s future are high.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. To receive pieces like this in your inbox subscribe to our newsletter.


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