National is working hard to align itself with Maori this election year

by Richard Harman / 13 July, 2017
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Bill English at Orakei Marae on Waitangi Day this year. Photo/Adrian Malloch

As “one-people” barrow pusher Don Brash seeks to upset the applecart, the National Party is working hard to align itself with Maori in the run-up to the election. 

Like an ageing rock star touring his greatest hits to grey-haired baby boomers, Don Brash is on the road again. The former leader of the National and Act parties is out and about in the provinces on a membership drive for Hobson’s Pledge, the group he formed last year to promote the idea that, when Captain William Hobson said to each Maori signing the Treaty at Waitangi, “he iwi tahi tatou”, he meant “we are all one people”.

Brash claims that Hobson’s words negate the need to acknowledge the rangatiratanga, or sovereignty, provisions of the Treaty and the specific representation they allow Maori in an increasing number of pieces of legislation and regulation.

At a meeting in Waikanae, Wellington’s satellite retirement town, about 100 devotees come to hear Brash reheat his notorious Orewa speech of January 2004. That was when he first argued that the Treaty of Waitangi had become irrelevant.

“We should not use the Treaty as a basis for creating greater civil, political or democratic rights for Maori than for any other New Zealander,” he says. “In the 21st century, it is unconscionable for us to be taking that separatist path.”

He reminds them of its impact; of how the National Party got such a sharp jump in popularity that polling companies rechecked their figures because they couldn’t believe the results and how National increased its share of the vote in the 2005 election to get within a sniff of Labour. “I’ve got no doubt that it was my speech that triggered that,” he says.

Don Brash delivering his Orewa speech, January, 2004. Photo/Getty Images

During that election campaign, National made play of Brash’s argument with its controversial “iwi/Kiwi” billboards. The hoardings were the inspiration of Wellington ad-man John Ansell, who was in the front row at Waikanae.

You get a taste of Ansell’s views with his 2011 comments that “these guys [Maori] have gone from the Stone Age to the Space Age in 150 years and haven’t said thanks”. But back in 2004-05, not everyone in the National Party was comfortable with either Brash’s speech or Ansell’s billboards.

Some, such as Chester Borrows, who would go on to win Whanganui on his third attempt, gritted their teeth and carried on. “I’m one of the people who got in on the back of Brash’s Orewa speech and I hated it from the start,” he says.

Today, Borrows is the only Pakeha MP on the Maori affairs select committee and is a strong supporter of Harete Hipango, the first Maori woman to stand in a winnable National seat. She will replace Borrows as candidate in Whanganui when he retires at the coming election.

Hekia Parata in December, 2011. Photo/Getty Images

“Incandescent with rage”

Former Education Minister Hekia Parata, who will leave Parliament at the September election, reacted differently. Parata had been a senior civil servant and an adviser to National Prime Minister Jim Bolger before getting involved with the party in 2001.

While working for the 1984-90 Labour Government, she had been approached to run as a Labour candidate. But Parata was married to Wira Gardiner, who had a long background in the National Party, and she emerged on the political scene as National’s Wellington Central candidate in 2002.

She was comfortable in the party: Bill English was leader and Michelle Boag president. National was looking more like an urban liberal party than the conservative rump it had become under Jenny Shipley.

“I looked at what the values of the leader were and what the values of the party were and I liked what I saw and heard about Bill and Mary [English] and their family and whanau. That was an important part of my decision when Michelle Boag was talking to me about where and when I would run.”

As a student, Parata had been involved in Springbok tour protests, but she had had little involvement in party politics. It was to be a rude introduction. She didn’t win Wellington Central, and she returned to Ruatoria, from where she and Gardiner ran a consulting business. She was effectively out of politics.

Then, two years later, she heard Brash’s Orewa speech. “I was incandescent with rage and resigned my party membership,” she says. Then she tells a story that sounds increasingly familiar as you talk to more Maori National Party members: she met John Key.

Parata had already formed a bond with English, but it was when Key became leader in 2006 that she returned to the party. They had met as candidates in 2002, and he asked her to organise a trip to the East Coast to meet the locals. “We had a long car ride around the Cape and back, talking in between visits, and at the end he asked if I would think about running again.

“As I did with Bill, I really liked his values, his outlook, his absolutely open embrace of New Zealand and its potential and diversity and his lack of any kind of fear or bias about interactions with Maori.” And so she returned to National and entered Parliament from the party’s 2008 list.

Bill English decided to abandon Waitangi this year and headed to Orakei Marae in Auckland, where he was greeted by Ngati Whatua. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Bill English decided to abandon Waitangi this year and headed to Orakei Marae in Auckland, where he was greeted by Ngati Whatua. Photo/Adrian Malloch

National's Maori embrace

Although Parata became a high-profile minister and left her mark on education, her most important role may have been her relationships with Key and, in particular, English. Whether it was her encouragement of English to learn te reo or the part played by her sister-in-law, Amo, as one of his advisers, the relationship between Parata and her whanau and English has been critical to the embrace by National’s leadership of Maori.

English acknowledges he has been close to the Parata family over the years. But he won’t go much further. Parata herself is happier to talk about the relationship and says that a measure of his involvement was that he came to her mother’s tangi.

English’s ability to connect with Maori appears to come in part from his multicultural family: his wife, Mary, is part-Samoan. “I think it helps,” he says.

Mary and Bill English. Photo/Getty Images

But he also points to aspects of his upbringing on the family farm at Dipton that are relevant to his relations with Maori. “There was a big premium on skills on the farm,” he says. “We had local Maori families who were shearers, so there was always this respect for the skilled person and for the family and whanau. So from an early age that was something we were comfortable with rather than thinking it was different.”

His politics are a product of that same background: he is a conservative from a Catholic family and family is important to him. Dipton and the Catholic Church also seem to have played a critical role in defining his relationship with Maori.

Other Catholic National Party politicians such as Jim Bolger and Chris Finlayson talk about the strand of compassion that runs through the Church and influences the way English approaches politics. And, of course, the Church, like Dipton, is conservative.

“A lot of Maori aspirations are essentially conservative,” he says. That was made clear for him when he became involved, as Finance Minister, in Treaty negotiations. “It was a case of realising one day that the people I was communicating with were like the people I was brought up with in a completely Pakeha world – rural, religious, family-orientated and conservative. That’s the way I was brought up.”

Yet both English and Parata believe it was Key, neither religious nor conservative and not from a rural background, who changed National’s attitude to Maori. “For someone who hadn’t been living in New Zealand, he had an amazingly intuitive grip,” says English.

Rob Muldoon and a Maori reception party, London, 1976. Photo/Alamy

Left baggage

Key’s absence from New Zealand – he worked overseas for a number of years before entering Parliament in 2002 – meant he was free of the baggage that many politicians were burdened with from involvement with Waitangi Day celebrations and other contentious events. You get a good feel for what it was like when you talk to Winston Peters.

It is often forgotten that Peters stood for National in 1975 in what was then the Northern Maori electorate. For a while he was the party’s pin-up boy: the polite Maori lawyer from the north who, when he won the Hunua seat in 1978, looked like he was headed for the top.

“But when Muldoon said I would be the first Maori Prime Minister, he didn’t do me any favours in the National Party,” says Peters. “It was, ‘so, he’s the target, let’s go after him now’. But I have never wanted to be the first Maori anything. I regard that as a racist statement.”

Peters avoids questions about what other Maori MPs who were in the National caucus later would describe as the party’s inherent racism. That was exemplified in 1995 when the-then chief whip, John Carter, impersonated an unemployed Maori called Hone in a phone call to John Banks’ radio show.

Instead, Peters believes he transcended his Maori-ness in what was essentially a Pakeha institution with his opposition to former National Finance Minister Ruth Richardson’s free-market economic policies. That saw his popularity soar above that of Prime Minister Jim Bolger. “I was against their economic policy so, for some of them, their enmity was so great that they forgot I was a Maori.”

National Party pin-up boy Winston Peters in 1988. Photo/Getty

The impression remains that some of those divisions are still real. And although English was not in Cabinet when Peters was at loggerheads with Richardson, Peters does not seem to have any sympathy for him. “He’s a believer in neo-liberal economics; I have never been.” Nor is he impressed with English’s relationship with the Maori Party. “It’s a relationship of delusional convenience.”

But one of the paradoxes of Peters’ campaign against National’s 1990 economic policies was, as Parata argues, that he broke the mould for Maori politicians. Thanks to Peters, instead of being regarded as MPs who should confine themselves to Maori issues, Maori politicians could operate across any policy area, and often very effectively.

Thus Parata held the high-profile and politically dangerous education portfolio, which, she says, is all she wanted to do in politics. And she has also “normalised” Maori within National. “We have a very big Maori caucus. By that I mean we have not only more Maori with whakapapa than any other caucus, but also a big caucus of MPs who can get up and waiata.”

Perhaps recognising how incongruous this would once have seemed, she repeats herself. “The National Party can get up and do waiata for any event now. We go to big events like Ratana, Waitangi, the Kingitanga celebrations and to other events around the country. They have become normalised into our agenda along with things like agricultural field days.”

Perhaps an indication of the level of comfort National now appears to be developing with Maori is the selection of Hipango as its candidate for Whanganui. Hipango, a lawyer and friend of Dame Tariana Turia, is standing in a seat that has been in the frontline of the Pakeha backlash against the Maori renaissance. Whanganui was the location of the Moutoa Gardens occupation of the mid-90s and was the centre of further controversy when an “h” was inserted in the city’s name in line with Maori wishes.

English at the Orakei Marae. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Long-standing connection

Hipango has the backing of Borrows, and her family have a long-standing connection with the National Party. The Te Heuheu of Tuwharetoa are whanau. And she says National’s values resonate with her as a Maori. “When I think about it, the old people didn’t get by on state benefits, they got by on reliance within their own,” she says. “Those influences of the old people align with National Party values, so that is where I am at.”

As a lawyer, she deals with many hard social issues, and she finds it uplifting to be involved with a party that she sees as wanting solutions. She’s cautious when she is asked about the reception she is getting in Whanganui. Already, there’s been a thinly veiled racist letter to the local paper, attacking her candidacy. “But it’s nothing different to what I have traversed over the course of my lifetime,” she says.

“I happen to be a visible face and aligned with the National Party … and some people are getting a bit more airtime because we are going into an election campaign, but this is nothing different to what I have experienced.”

In a way, Hipango is a beneficiary of National’s policy of not fielding candidates in Maori seats. She would undoubtedly have been seen as a candidate for the Te Tai Hauauru seat with which she has strong affiliations. But that policy is allowing candidates like her now to stand for general electorate seats.

Photo/Adrian Malloch

Ambition rewarded

Adrienne Pierce is another Maori standing for National, in the less-winnable seat of Palmerston North. She’s not as connected with the Maori community as Hipango, although she went to the celebrated and now-closed Queen Victoria Maori Girls’ School in Parnell, Auckland. She says National’s values resonate with her because they say that if you work hard, you will get rewarded.

That’s what she has done. She has just sold her business, which provided outsourced business solutions. “If you are ambitious, then the National Party is an ambitious party; it’s a very positive party, which is what I love about it.”

Candidates Hipango and Pierce along with MPs Parata, Nuk Korako and Jo Hayes are clearly Maori politicians comfortable in a Maori world.

But then there are the “assimilated” MPs, Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett, Jami-Lee Ross and Paul Foster-Bell: all have Maori ancestry and are happy to talk about it, but they don’t see themselves as Maori MPs. Bennett likes to joke that she grew up in “Towpo” but Labour’s Louisa Wall grew up in “Torpo”.

Back in the Beehive, English may feel empathetic with Maori, but there’s more at stake than his own personal comfort. It’s no secret that he hopes the Maori Party can provide National with sufficient seats after the election so that it doesn’t need to call on Peters and New Zealand First to help form a government. This has led to both the Government and National approaching Maori issues with some caution.

Photo/Adrian Malloch

It means MPs having to bite their tongues rather than criticise iwi-participation clauses in the Resource Management Act, and at party conferences, members who have tried to move what might be considered racially divisive remits have effectively been silenced.

But in the background, because the party is also the Government, a different relationship with Maori organisations has also developed. Bridges, the Economic Development Minister, whose father was Ngati Maniapoto, heads the Cabinet’s interface with groups such as the Iwi Leadership Forum. “The relationship between Maori and the Government has moved from one that had predominantly been seen by us as a risk to manage to one that more than ever is about upside and opportunity,” he says. “We now associate iwi with business enterprise and economic development as much as with social issues.”

The most dramatic demonstration of this was when English decided to abandon Waitangi and the politics of protest and grievance and head to Orakei Marae in Auckland, where Ngati Whatua are using their settlement money to become real players in the Auckland business world.

English’s own mihi in te reo was evidence of his personal investment in te ao Maori and it was an ideal platform for him to point to the way National was now looking at Maori as an independent economic force.

Bridges says this began with Key and has intensified under English. “His role in this has been to see that ministers really get it. I think he brings a very strong historical and philosophical position to it as well.”

Photo/Adrian Malloch

English himself sees the connection between National and Maori as the same alignment of values that Hipango and Pierce describe. And in defining that alignment, he reflects the political philosophy that Bridges talks about.

“National supports the enterprise, initiative and self-reliance of Maori and shares a natural scepticism of the state,” English says. “The way we talk about breaking out of dependency has now become quite mainstream among Maori, where 10 or 15 years ago it was radical.”

Of course, if you keep following the path beyond Maori scepticism of the state, you end up with having to define “tino rangatiratanga” and trying to reconcile “partnership” with a unitary state. “It’s a test – regularly,” says English. “There is a natural tension between the Maori view of partnership and their traditional models of leadership and the democratic process.

“We get to reassert the primacy of the democratic process, which is fundamentally democratic, not fundamentally about a partnership. The partnership can go only so far. Being able to draw the line is a critical part of an effective relationship.”

That may not always be easy. As Maori become more important demographically, they will be able to apply greater political pressure. If National leads the next government, Maori, through the Iwi Leadership Forum, will seek to resolve the water-allocation impasse. That can only be achieved if the role of Maori in the allocation process is worked out, which will raise questions about ownership and control of water.

National’s waiata may help, but ultimately English will have to test the line between partnership and democracy. If in doing so he fails to resolve this tension, Brash will be waiting.

This article was first published in the July 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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