An opportunity for a Maori party at last with power

Since 2002 the proportion of MPs who are Maori has clearly exceeded the Maori proportion of the voting-age population. Now there is a Maori party in the governing machine.

In part this has come from the increase in Maori electorates from four to seven, each with fewer electors than in the general electorates.

In part it refects most parties’ desire to feature Maori on their lists. National now has seven Maori MPs (to Labour’s six).

And in part it reflects that being Maori is now a badge. Whereas in the past some MPs who had some Maori whakapapa made little or nothing of it (the early Winston Peters was an example), now all acknowledge or claim it.

Maori are no longer brown pakeha. The general culture — the way we live and think about ourselves day-to-day — is much more infused with Maori language and tikanga. As in the wider society, so in the political precincts.

And now a conservative party steeped in British political tradition has tied the knot with a party promoting indigenous rights. Twenty-five years ago that would have been unthinkable on both sides.

But the traffic is not one-way. For many Maori whakapapa is incidental. Some make sure they are registered with their iwi but don’t see being Maori as a primary self-identifier. Some don’t activate their Maori side.

Again, as in the wider society, so in the political precincts.

And is our politics bumping up against the limits to the rise of Maori? The number of Maori MPs has changed little in three elections. The rise in the number of Maori electorates has stalled at seven: not enough Maori chose the Maori roll after the 2006 census to generate the expected eighth electorate.

Those on the Maori roll on November 8 were just 7.7 per cent of the total of registered voters. That is two-thirds of the 11.9 per cent Maori were of the voting-age population in late 2006, a relativity that is closely similar across all voting-age groups. Half as many moved from the Maori roll to the general roll in 2006 as went the other way.

The Maori party speaks for many Maori but not all.

Consider the focus of its agreement with National: a heavy emphasis on political representation and self-determination, coupled with portfolio responsibilities directed at alleviating poverty.

John Key has agreed to set up a “group to consider constitutional issues”.

At the core of any such consideration is the place of the Treaty of Waitangi, the “founding document” of the nation.

Constitutional law expert Matthew Palmer says the Treaty’s place is “incoherent”, the outcome, like much in our constitution, of ad hoc, pragmatic, muddle-through making of more space for iwi in our power system.

Palmer wants a special court to rule “with binding force” on disputes between the Crown and Maori. The foreshore argument, on which Parliament overruled the Appeal Court’s finding for iwi and which spawned the Maori party, could have been a signal case.

Palmer’s proposal edges close to enshrining the Treaty in a written document ruled on by the Supreme Court, as in the United States. That would have obvious appeal to iwi but not to most voters — nor, unless it adjusts some of its fundamental beliefs about the law, to the National party, even under Key and even keen to build links with Maori.

And anyway, is it an idea whose time has peaked?

The Treaty in our politics has been principally about the recovery of rights for iwi: rights of tino rangatiratanga, rights to culture and rights to a formal place in the power structure and real political representation. Those are essentially article 2 issues.

This decade the focus among up-and-coming Maori has been shifting from rights to educational, social and economic development. Rights remain important and but development is increasingly important.

In part this flows from the big settlements of the 1990s and in part from the emergence of a smart, educated, assured Maori middle class.

This new breed can manage burgeoning iwi assets much more professionally than its elders. Ngai Tahu led the way. Steve Murray (a late comer to his Maoriness) picked Tainui up from a poor start. Both iwi are now serious commercial players in their towns.

As other settlements are converted into big growth assets over the next five to 10 years, iwi will be an economic weight in the land.

The issue then is how to use that weight to lift educational performance and promote Maori in business. Those are essentially article 3 issues.

The issue for Maori is prosperity, security and respect in the modern, internationalised society and economy — just as it was in 1840. Recovery of lost rights and real political representation have been necessary but not sufficient preconditions.

The Maori party still sees work to do to assert the role of “Treaty partner”; numbers in Parliament are not its endgame. But its ulterior opportunity, now that it is in the power machine, is to become, and be seen as, an agent of development. Key’s opportunity is to walk with it on that journey.