In two worlds: the distinct politics of the Maori party

Much of politics is conducted in two worlds: fors and againsts. But politics often also divides between a small world and a big world.

Example: Winston Peters. The great majority won’t have a bar of him, especially since the Glenn/Jones shenanigans. But for a small number he is the bee’s knees.

Example: John Key the owner of changing amounts of TranzRail shares while an MP specialising in transport.

In the broader world this slip of convenient memory was seen as a dent in his image, not a hanging offence — at most a few votes lost to Labour, compounding the Merrill Lynch meltdown link Michael Cullen is pushing.

But the bank dealing rooms, the world where he made his pile, were aghast at his lapse of ethics. So, too, were some over the coffee at the Institute of Finance Professionals conference. “Code red and departing”, was the way some put it; whom to vote for now? (Actually National, in the cool of polling day, still weeks away — but with diminished trust and enthusiasm.)

Third, and far more important, example: the Maori party’s two worlds.

Much of the election coverage of the Maori party so far has been on which major party it might assist into office after the election.

Can it be the reason there is a Labour-led government if Labour scores fewer seats than National? Labour is the foreshore/seabed law party and contests the Maori seats. Can the Maori party be the reason there is a National-led government when the demographic profile of its voter support is much closer to Labour’s than National’s? National wants to abolish the Maori seats.

But this big-world binary focus misses the point of the Maori party.

The party’s constitution declares it was founded “for the benefit of all citizens of this land”. And in fact the party does operate in the Parliament of all the citizens, the general world of politics, in which it must deal with the other parties and haggle for deals to realise its policy ambitions — piecemeal, as all such deals are for small parties.

But the Maori party also operates in, draws its legitimacy from and shapes its ambitions for, another world: te ao Maori. It does not see that world as a subset of the larger world but as a distinct and parallel world.

So, while the Maori party is within the general party system, it is also parallel to it. While many of its policy aspirations align with those of other parties, the motivation and reasoning are different.

In 2005 party president Whata Winiata said the Treaty [of Waitangi] partner had come to Parliament. He did not mean by that that his party represented a segment of society, as New Zealand First and NewLabour did, or a core of believers in a philosophy, as do the Greens and, at its best, ACT. He meant his party represented an ethnic group with claims to cultural, and in turn political, equality.

The Treaty was a compact between equals. Of course, it was an unequal compact, given Britain’s huge economic and military power, which in short order it exercised to impose economic, political and cultural dominance. But in 1986 the Court of Appeal concocted a notion of “partnership” and it is as a partner, not one minority among many, that the Maori party sees its role.

Thus its constitution states that its “existence will be based on kaupapa Maori, the foundation principles of the Maori world”.

It lays out nine guiding principles drawn from Maori spirituality and custom: manaakitanga (acknowledging others’ mana), rangatiratanga (self-determination), whanaungatanga (interdependence), kotahitanga (unity and harmony), wairuatanga (a spiritual existence alongside the physical), mana whenua (homeland), kaitiakitanga (spiritual and cultural guardianship), whakapapa (connectedness to ancestors and heritage) and te reo Maori.

It sets out 42 objectives drawn from those principles.

Of other parties only the Greens come near this different-world way of thinking. The Maori party is distinctly Maori. That marks its MPs. As one Maori commentator put it to me, the party resembles the nineteenth-century Maori MPs who stood both outside and inside the system.

Of course, the party, in pushing policies to minister to the Maori world, must deal with other parties and within the system.

But in doing that it insists on “independence”. Any gains it makes for “all citizens” is by way of Maori tikanga, drawn from the Maori world. If there are Maori party ministers attached to the next government, there will likely need to be yet another constitutional innovation.

This Maori world is still a small world in our politics. But it portends a signal change in those politics, the logical MMP outcome of the separate seats.

Managing that change is the critical challenge for the Maori party, now going on to the front foot after securing its place this term. It is also a challenge for the whole political system. Are you up to it?

* My reference last week to Charlie Brown wanting ups, ups and more ups should have been to his fellow cartoon character, Lucy.