I was down in Wellington on Monday and Tuesday for a Waitangi Tribunal Advocacy Conference, and while I was there I was extended an invitation to attend the Māori Television Native Kowhiri debate for the Te Tai Tonga Electorate. While this article is about that debate, I want to briefly mention the Conference as it was a very worthwhile exercise: we covered a lot of material canvassing recent developments in the field, listened to some occasionally heated debates about the balance between justice and resourcing, and generally engaged in a constructive korero over the current, and future, operation of the Tribunal. I plan to write a detailed review of the Conference later in the week once I have had a chance to fully digest all the materials and korero of the day.
Returning then to the Te Tai Tonga Debate held at Wellington’s wonderful Wharewaka. My overall impression is that all four candidates performed well in an environment that would have been extremely foreign to them. Party positions were strongly advocated for, questions were answered to a satisfactory degree, and there was generally a sense of respect for all the candidates by the supporters. Although respect for the candidates from the audience only went so far.
Before the debate, all the talk was centred on the battle between incumbent Māori Party MP Rahui Katene and Labour challenger Rino Tirikatene. I felt that both made impressive starts to the debate, although the pressure soon got the better of both candidates. Rahui found herself, rather unfairly in my opinion, heckled constantly by the Labour and Te Mana supporters and this caused much consternation amongst the assembled Māori Party supporters. Rino, on the other hand, lost his way on several questions, highlighting the difficulties faced by a political newcomer in getting up to speed with the full range of a parties policies in such a short time. At one point he announced that Labour would resume funding for the National Diabetic Fund, but quickly rescinded that commitment after a few stern looks from Labour’s Māori caucus in attendance. Rino also appears to have adopted the rather unsavoury Labour party tactic of speaking over an opponent when they have the floor. It is unnecessary, disrespectful, and unbecoming of a person who aspires to national office. Julian Wilcox has proven himself as a fair and impartial moderator and provided opportunities for all the candidates to put their points across so there was no need to force your way into the discussion by talking over another speaker.
In terms of the substance of their comments. Everyone stuck to their party lines well, and were strong advocates for their party positions. Rahui defended the actions of the Māori Party over the past three years with mixed success. To each achievement there were cheers of support from the Māori Party supporters and angry outbursts from the Labour supporters. As I have said before, the fortunes of the Māori Party at this election will depend on how well they can defend their record. On this showing, there is still some work to be down in this area. Rino provided a good analysis of what needs to be done for Māori in terms of education, unemployment and welfare – although his assertion that Māori are best served by a Labour Party MP because only they can form the alternative to National was nothing short of laughable and self-serving. As passionate and determined they might be, the Māori caucus within Labour find themselves in exactly the same position as the Māori Party when it comes to discussing Māori issues at the Cabinet Table. Yes, a Māori voice is at the table, but it is still a minority voice.
Which brings me to the curious involvement of Te Mana candidate Clinton Dearlove. His low profile and opening contributions in no way prepared the audience for what was to come. He grew powerfully into the debate as came across as an articulate and passionate advocate for Māori issues. He is unlikely to win the electorate, and it is therefore a great shame that both Sue Bradford and John Minto have been given the 3rd and 4th spots of the Te Mana list instead of him. His emphasis of Te Reo and better health outcomes were the big winners of the night, although he appeared to suggest at one time that the health system in New Zealand is inherently racist which had a few of the Māori Party and Labour supporters scratching their heads. The use of such inflammatory language is fast becoming a feature of the Te Mana campaign and while it appeals to its core support, it is unlikely to be as well received within the more conservative sections of the electorate. But the problem that Clinton faces in attempting to win the seat is bigger than that. As one kuia said after the debate, he is a complete outsider unknown to most within the community. Both Rahui and Rino are well-known within Wellington and the South Island communities whom they represent and this is an important factor that you need in your favour in order to win election in a Māori seat.
All in all, the entire evening was a great success. Māori Television and the Native Affairs crew did a wonderful job in conducting the debate and it is great to see local issues getting such a prominent discussion.