Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Māori Party and tino rangatiratanga

The argument between Harawira and the other Māori Party MPs has inspired me to write a post about the problems of Māori parties, and the problems I have with the direction the Māori Party has chosen in this election term. This is not intended to be critical of the Māori Party caucus or any individuals within it. I see the pressures they have been put under. I know I don't have all the answers, I hope that this essay is useful.

I’ve held off criticising the Māori Party until now. At the time the Māori Party formed, there was so much optimism among the people I knew, it would have been rude and unnecessarily self-righteous to be critical. Additionally, the Māori Party was certain to get a whole heap of criticism that they didn’t deserve from people who don’t understand the difference between white supremacy movements versus movements for indigenous worldviews, issues and experiences to be included in decision making. I thought the Māori Party deserved a chance. Having said that, it is essential to be critical. Now seems like a perfect time to think about the problems in having a Māori party, and strategies that I think would keep a Māori party relevant and useful to the decolonisation project.


The Māori Party and tino rangatiratanga

I believe the existence of the Māori Party within government damages the struggle for tino rangatiratanga. By agreeing to work within the parliamentary system without speaking against it, especially within government, the Māori Party gives legitimacy to that system. They show that the coloniser can accommodate tangata whenua without having to give up any power. We are simply another minority partner like ACT. An amazing protest movement, pregnant with potential, has been turned into a prop for the status quo. Symbolically, the same has happened with the tino rangatiratanga flag—it has gone from a symbol of Māori resistance to one of national pride and unity under the current system.

The Māori Party is now positioned where they say they want to be, in government. This puts them between Māori people and the government. The Māori Party confuses Māori by selling us National Party policy, like private prisons, subsidies for polluters, and foreshore and seabed legislation. They tell us we can’t see the bigger picture, and refuse to explain it to us. They diffuse our dissent—instead of fighting the government for their anti-Māori policies, we are arguing with our whanaunga in the Māori Party, who now appear to be on the side of the Crown.

This gives the National Party the moral high ground—they have spoken to the Māori Party and the iwi leaders who were referred to them, they have made concessions to the Māori Party and the iwi leaders. They believed in good faith that these people represent Māori, what more can we expect of them?

The Māori Party argues that by being in government, they are able to influence the decisions that are being made. They have won some symbolic victories, such as a review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act (which told us what we already know, and doesn't appear to have resulted in any real gains), signing on to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which Key immediately said is non-binding and won't make any difference to the government's approach to Māori issues). Whānau Ora is the only real victory I see that has come from a Māori Party agenda (and I hope it is hugely successful).

It looks as if the Māori Party is bogged down with fighting for small concessions. I'm not hearing anything of the Māori Party agenda, their visions for the future. It looks like they are only reacting to Key's agenda. This risks turning the fight for recognition as tangata whenua, into one for consideration as just another special interest group. Instead of fighting for ideals, acting as our mouthpieces in parliament, the Māori Party is stuck haggling to make government policy less bad (at least, I assume that’s what they do. It's hard to tell when they do so much that looks like National Party PR). Small concessions do nothing to inspire Māori—it reinforces the message that this is all we can hope for and all that we are worth. Whatever tino rangatiratanga means to each of us, no amount of National Party concessions is going to get us there.

The Māori Party and kaupapa Māori

Representative democracy is a system where individuals are elected by popular vote to represent a portion of the population in decision making for a period of time. Elections are the only way representatives are accountable for the decisions they make. The system can be described as top-down, because information and power are concentrated with the few representatives, who make decisions for the people. By contrast, kaupapa Māori is a participatory system of decision making, meaning everyone affected by an issue can be part of deciding what to do. Nothing is decided by popular vote, instead decisions are made by consensus, allowing minority views to be included in outcomes. Rangatira are directly and immediately accountable to their whanaunga, and cannot make decisions without their support.

Recently, many people have been criticising the way decisions have been made by the Māori Party, and the direction that they are heading (e.g. Annette Sykes discussed the role of Iwi Leaders, Moana Jackson looked at the National Party’s Marine and Coastal Areas Bill, and Harawira has asked questions from within). The Māori Party strategy is explained by their desire to remain part of the government. At the same time, the Māori Party claims to be kaupapa driven. I think it would be impossible to operate as part of the government in a system of representative democracy while remaining kaupapa Māori. The Māori Party are receiving criticism because they have strayed from kaupapa Māori, and are now operating as any other political party within parliament.

In order to support the government, the Māori party is making decisions on timeframes set by the National Party. To a large extent, the timeframe determines how much involvement the public can have in those decisions. As shown by the emissions trading scheme and the Marine and Coastal Areas bill, the Māori Party is agreeing to timeframes that cannot possibly allow Māori to have any meaningful participation. If decisions are not coming from the people, then the process is not kaupapa driven, no matter how politically expedient the Māori Party think their decisions are.

Another aspect of kaupapa Māori is that it is always clear who someone is speaking on behalf of and accountable to. This is not true of the Māori Party—it is unclear who their MPs are mandated to speak for, and they appear to only be accountable to each other outside elections.

Is there a role for a Māori party?

There are certainly ways that a Māori political party can be useful to the tino rangatiratanga movement. Political parties get funding for research and organising, they get media attention, and they get access to people and places most of us don’t. All of these are fantastic resources for the movement. But there are really important things that a Māori party would need to do that are different from what the Māori Party is currently doing. Many of my suggestions correspond to those already made by Harawira in the Sunday Star Times.
  • the message of tino rangatiratanga is important—with a clear and positive vision (or visions), a Māori party can inspire and motivate us to join and continue struggling. It can also educate tauiwi about what this means.
  • a Māori party must be guided by kaupapa Māori. Kaupapa will help the party make decisions that advance tino rangatiratanga.
  • a Māori party needs to be focused on the long term. Decolonisation is not a short term project, Māori have been fighting colonisation for generations. Anything that can be achieved in a single election term can be overturned in the next. All short term potential gains need to be checked against the long term goals of tino rangatiratanga.
  • I agree with Harawira that a Māori party has to loudly fight any policies that are bad for Māori. If we send them to parliament, they need to be our champions in parliament. Turia’s unwavering opposition to Labour’s foreshore and seabed bill was inspirational, likewise Harawira’s opposition to National’s bill. We need this. We need people who show that we are worth fighting for.
  • a Māori party needs to remain part of the movement—this means it needs our strong and critical support. Parliament is its own world, removed from the people, removed from te ao Māori. Those in parliament need advisors to keep them safe: whanaunga, activists, kaumātua, visionaries, rangatahi, academics. They need regular time away from parliament to be immersed again in the world where the rest of us live—not in their offices or ministerial cars, but in our homes, our marae, our sports clubs and hui.
  • like Harawira, I believe that any Māori party must spend a good deal of its time on the road talking to Māori. Not only will this allow the party’s policy to be driven by the people, but the party can also contribute to relationships among Māori. They can help build kotahitanga.
  • I also agree with Harawira that a Māori party will voice diverse opinions. There is no reason why it shouldn’t. Kaupapa Māori decision making includes listening to the variety of voices and working together to find solutions that will endure.
All of these points suggest that a Māori party working according to kaupapa Māori, and working towards visions of tino rangatiratanga, will not be in government. A Māori party’s decisions must be accountable to Māori people, not to a coalition agreement. The Green Party has shown that with a strong vision much can be achieved from outside government.


Harawira’s suggestions for the future of the Māori Party seem about right to me. Many Māori—activists, academics, rangatira, kaumātua, rangatahi—have also been increasingly confused by and critical of the direction the Māori Party has been heading in this electoral term. It is helpful to have someone in the caucus speaking frankly to the rest of us about what is happening, and it is heartening that someone in the caucus is being reflective.

Supporting the government was always a dangerous path for the Māori Party, requiring that the two party leaders be immersed in parliament, with the risk that they would become isolated from their people and the kaupapa. I believe this asks too much of them, and is the reason the party appears to have lost its way. Māori politicians need time away from parliament, me hoki ki ngā maunga kia purea e ngā hau o Tāwhirimātea, and they need support when they are in Wellington. In order for a Māori party to advance tino rangatiratanga, it must be careful where it positions itself. If it is within government, or not vocally opposed to government, it becomes a tool for assimilation. In my opinion, no amount of small concessions can balance that. Māori are not a special interest or minority group, Māori are tangata whenua. I don’t want to be consulted, or get some set of special and superficial rights. I want a completely different system.

A Māori party can help us move towards tino rangatiratanga, but only if they know exactly what they are there for, only if we can keep our politicians safe from the pressures they will be under, and only if they are clear that the current parliamentary system is illegitimate.


  1. Kia ora Kim
    Awesome piece, you capture the complexities of the Maori party's relation to Colonising government beautifully. Kia kaha.

  2. Tawdz4:12 pm

    Awesome Kim!

  3. Tuta Ngarimu9:05 pm

    kia Ora Kim
    Maori Party has compromised to much of its/our Maoriness to stop..its to late..there just gonna keep driving there false kaupapa til it crashes..& it will crash

  4. Anonymous9:52 pm

    Brilliant Kim I agree unless Maori set or drive the political agenda to reflect our kaupapa and tikanga in Aotearoa then we may as well be nothing.