Waitangi Day's meaning now: two peoples in one society

Election buffs are eagerly watching the Maori party. Why? Because it might just give us overhang seats in Parliament.

Let’s say the Maori party gets 2 per cent of the party vote and wins all seven Maori electorate seats. The 2 per cent entitles it to three seats but under MMP rules it keeps all seven and the size of the Parliament goes up by four to 124.

It once seemed possible Peter Dunne might be the first overhang, getting too few party votes to justify his one electorate seat. Instead, he stormed to 6.7 per cent in 2002.

Tariana Turia offers better odds. There is widespread interest in her party. If that interest translates into votes at election time, who knows how many Maori electorates might switch?

In 1996 New Zealand First, given a tacit nod by the Ratana movement and some other prominent leaders, won all the Maori electorates. Labour won them all back in 1999 but on a lease, not a mortgage.

In 1993 Maori voted for MMP by a much higher margin than others. Why? Because, as the Maori FM stations intoned, MMP meant “more Maori in Parliament”.

So it has. But it could have been more. The tactical logic of MMP for Maori was to vote for a separate Maori grouping or party in the electorates and count on the other parties to include Maori on their lists.

The parliamentary logic of doing that was that if a separate Maori party held all the Maori electorates, it would likely hold the balance of power more often than not. This would especially be so as the number of electorates builds up over time as the number on the Maori roll grows.

The potential for leverage over government policy is obvious. That potential leverage is part of the Maori party’s allure.

But that leverage would have to be used carefully and strategically. Heavy-handed use would generate instability and voters have consistently told pollsters over many years they don’t like instability. When there has been instability since 1996 support has risen for dumping MMP and curbing small parties’ influence.

You could also bet support for abolishing the Maori electorates would rise if seven Maori party MPs threw their weight around. (They are likely to go in any case when National next wins power.)

In other words, the influence would be transitory or limited.

The foreshore and seabed issue, which is the wellspring of the party’s appeal, is a case in point. Had the Maori party been in Parliament with the balance of power these past 20 months and held a gun to Helen Clark’s head, she would have had to move nearer National’s position to get her legislation through — a worse outcome for Maori than what transpired.

The lesson for Turia’s party is that rhetoric can do wonders in an election (and might this year) but it is not long-run strategic politics.

And long-run politics is not on the Maori party’s side. The foreshore and seabed shemozzle made that clear. The majority, already nervous, puzzled or angry about where politicians had taken the Treaty of Waitangi, would not have worn a drawn-out process of court hearings of claims for freehold title to its beloved “beaches”.

The government’s vulnerability to that sort of nervousness, puzzlement and anger was amply demonstrated in the reaction to Don Brash’s 2004 Orewa speech.

The government’s eventual New Zealand First-backed compromise, coupled with the calm over the summer, took a great deal of the heat out of the majority’s discomfort. Brash would not have got the same bounce from his 2004 speech if he had made it last week.

But that should not disguise the political fact that the limit has been reached in this generation to the extension of Maori rights under the treaty. The Maori party is florescent at the very time when the majority, and the government, is the least receptive in 20 years to its mission.

The government has long since turned its attention to development: individual and economic development. Expect Helen Clark to give this high profile in the lead-up to the election. The showcase will be the hui taumata on the Maori economy, planned since November 2003, in early March.

The Maori party is obviously pro-development but its raison d’etre is rights.

Expect also a focus on nation-building. This is a slowly building theme, touched on in the prime ministerial statement to Parliament and likely to feature in Labour’s election campaign. If Clark can pull off the rhetoric, it might partially finesse National’s negative campaigning on the treaty, welfare and crime.

Maori are an essential ingredient of Clark’s emerging nation. Demographically and culturally, this society is becoming more Pacific, more Polynesian, more Maori.

If you are looking for a meaning to Waitangi Day next Sunday, that is it. You can deplore it, fight it, proclaim “one people” on the British model but the inexorable momentum for the next decade or two is “two peoples” in “one society”.

Clark embraces this now but came to terms with it with difficulty. How much more difficult it would be for Brash.