Labour's Maori seats: alliance or absorption?

Australians habitually think of New Zealanders as backblock islanders, to be joked about at a bit more than Tasmanians. But Canberra is the place to find yokels right now.
Government and politics got to such a state in Australia last year that senior businesspeople were saying to New Zealand counterparts: “We wish we could have your government.” John Key and Bill English go over a treat there.

That is not just by comparison with the Labor-led government’s muddle. It is also by comparison with Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition alternative, now heading into the most unlosable election since 1993 (when the Liberals’ John Hewson lost to Paul Keating).

It doesn’t help that the tyres on the great Aussie economic vehicle have lost air, exposing how much hard fiscal and economic policy work is needed in Canberra and the state capitals. In place of condescending pity, media articles on New Zealand’s economy are now noting its much stronger performance and confidence figures.

That is the background for the latest act in the Australian Labor party’s tragi-farce — politics too bizarre to make credible fiction. Three years to the week after Julia Gillard knifed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for bad polling as an election loomed Rudd knifed Prime Minister Gillard for bad polling as an election loomed.

Gillard’s henchmen said Rudd was an monomaniacal autocrat who turned off them and the country.

Rudd’s henchmen said he would lose fewer seats in the coming election than Gillard. That was after having destabilised and white-anted Gillard (and the party and the government) over many months, which made her sagging polling sag much more.

Among other disabilities, Gillard was female. That brought upon her some archetypal Australian vilification and vituperation.

A distant overtone was heard here when Labour’s Ikaroa-Rawhiti candidate, Meka Whaitiri, voted worthy on Saturday to be an MP, said that on the marae her place was washing dishes — that is, out of sight, a custom more appropriate to the 1910s than the 2010s. Iwi have some modernising to do.

The Australian Labor party also has hard modernising to do to exit the era of hard men in hard factions and hard unions, appropriate maybe for the 1910s but odd in the 2010s.

Labour here did most of that readjustment back in the 1980s as unions decayed and were then flayed by deregulation and as a powerful cadre of women climbed the ranks. A common complaint now, including within Labour, is that it is in thrall to minorities, notably feminists and gays, and that turns off the suburbs.

But there is another dimension, revisited in Saturday’s by-election.

The result is a relief for Labour but not reassurance. It held the seat but may well not have if the Maori party and Mana had been one party with one candidate. Their combined vote was 4711 to Labour’s 4368.

By-election numbers should not be extrapolated nationally. But those numbers can safely be read as one more illustration of Labour’s need to rethink its role in the Maori seats: are they to be just Labour seats or should it think of them as seats to be allied to Labour?

Right now three Maori seats are allied to National via its deal with the Maori party, the kaupapa of which is Maori causes and interests. That alliance is at odds with Maori-seat voters’ socioeconomic needs which Labour meets better than National, evidenced in its four-to-one party vote in 2011. And it is a shaky alliance: the Maori party is organisationally weak and internally divided, which threatens it (and National) for 2014.

But, in allying with the Maori party, National happened on the same key to access to the seats which Labour happened on in the 1930s in its alliance with the Ratana movement.

Labour did not win them as Labour seats. They were Ratana seats.

By the early 1980s they were just Labour seats — though if party bosses had listened to their Maori council they would have heard a kaupapa different in tone and focus from that on the main conference floor.

As noted here last week, all or most of the seats have twice left Labour in the past 20 years. Unless Labour works out how to make them into Maori seats allied to Labour, they will be vulnerable to the next Maori electoral force.

Why? The only point of having Maori seats is as a channel for expressing distinct Maori interests, ambitions and needs. Maori socioeconomic needs and interests can be represented through the general seats.

Logic suggests for Labour an alliance approach akin to that with Ratana.

But that is easier said than done — and only one among many pre-2020s tests for David Shearer, Grant Robertson and their Y-generation up-and-comers and for the party at large.

So don’t bet on Labour working it out — even if it works out that it should work it out. In deepest social democracy there is no ethnicity.

Nor in deepest social democracy is there gender. Unless you are in Australia, when the width of a Labor leader’s hips is, it seems, a crucial election factor.