February 20, 2017
Wily Willie could be election decider.
Wily Willie could be election decider.
It was all going so well. The Maori Party looked revitalised, and heading into election year could claim successes in its flagship Whanau Ora programme, as well as being part of a government that has concluded some of the most important Treaty settlements in a generation. And on top of that, the party has reached an entente with an equally resurgent Mana Party, which while not necessarily cordial, nonetheless represents a potentially vital voting bloc in Parliament after the September election.
At the same time, Labour looked to be struggling to secure its Maori support-base, especially after an underwhelming performance by its leader at Ratana last month.
So all the signs appeared to be pointing to a collapse in Labour’s Maori vote. Until, that is, Andrew Little’s stroke of genius in placing Willie Jackson on a high list position in the party – thus almost guaranteeing him a seat in Parliament after the election. But why does Jackson represent a potential change in fortune for Labour and as a more distant possibility, the chance of a Labour victory in seven months? The answer is twofold.
Firstly, Jackson is personally endearing and intelligent, and represents the Labour Party of old – when it was still a party of the workers rather than forlorn liberal social causes. In addition, he already has parliamentary experience, and is a communicator with a common touch – at a time when some in the Labour-Green marriage come across as aloof academic types.
However, what makes Jackson so important as far as the Maori vote is concerned is that he is the highest-profile candidate in any party who is standing explicitly for urban Maori. The accusation that the Maori party is the parliamentary branch of an iwi elite is a longstanding one. And at the same time, this so-called iwi elite is attracting growing criticism from some quarters as inequalities within many iwi show no sign of reducing, despite the increasing wealth of some tribes.
As an example, the Herald reported last week that Tainui has net assets per member of $13,901, compared with Ngapuhi’s net assets per member of $425. Yet in both cases, significant poverty plagues a large portion of both iwi. What has become abundantly clear over the last two decades is the growth in the wealth in most iwi has not been accompanied by the broad elevation in the proportionate wealth of the members of those iwi.
And this is when Jackson’s presence becomes crucial. He can potentially become the mouthpiece of what is nominally called “urban” Maori, but which in practice now encompasses those Maori who – regardless of where they live – feel they have seen little benefit from the Treaty settlements reached in their name.
Not only can Jackson speak on their behalf and articulate their frustrations, he can also point to his own lengthy role in urban Maori development, with a range and depth of accomplishments that in some instances exceed those of iwi organisations.
The reason why this is important is that there is a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots in many iwi, with the latter feeling hard-done-by after waiting for decades in some cases for the benefits of their tribe’s Treaty settlements to trickle down to them, and still not having seen a drop.
Jackson will push the case for urban Maori to receive more government attention, and has the inside knowledge to convert whatever funding is channelled in that direction to achieve something tangible for those who need it most. His work in the area of domestic violence is a good example of such policies in action.
It would be wrong to underestimate the size of the challenge ahead of Jackson and Labour. Maori invested generations of support for Labour for what turned out to be little in the way of dividends in the past fifteen years. Meanwhile, the Maori Party has demonstrated itself to be a master of pragmatic politics, while Hone Harawira remains one of the most principled politicians in recent times, regardless of what some people may feel about those principles.
However, if anyone is capable of clawing back some of Labour’s drifting Maori vote, Jackson is that person. The question is whether he will have the backing of his colleagues, and whether there is time left for him to make that case that Maori still have a reason to return to Labour.
Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology
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