Ka mua, ka muri. This rather elegant Māori proverb reminds us that to move forward, we must keep one eye on our past. To move backwards into our future. This is a theme that is running through my life at the moment. As I am preparing to return home to New Zealand after two years in London I find myself looking back on my career to date in an attempt to plot a pathway forward. With the formation of a Labour-led government I also find myself looking back. Reflecting on the actions of the previous Labour government and what Māori can or should expect from our new government in light of this.
The starting point of my reflection is, as it always is, 2003 and the foreshore and seabed controversy. We all know this history. The previous Labour government was responsible for one of the largest confiscations of Māori land. This led to the fragmentation of Labour’s support among Māori and the rise of the Māori Party after Tariana Turia crossed the floor and voted against the legislation, the only Māori MP from the Labour Party to do so. Nanaia Mahuta, one of the current leading candidates for Minister of Māori Development, voted for the legislation.
If the foreshore and seabed controversy was the catalyst for the deterioration of Labour-Māori relations, what followed only deepened the divide. Already hurting from the poor performance of its flagship “Closing the Gaps” policy during the first term and the slow pace of negotiations with iwi over Treaty of Waitangi settlements, the remainder of Labour’s second and third terms descended into outright hostility between the government and Māori.
The refusal to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the sanctioning of the police raids on Māori communities in Te Urewera; refusing to engage with the Māori Party and placing them the “last cab off the rank”; and Helen Clark ignoring the tens of thousands who marched on parliament to protest the foreshore and seabed legislation, describing them instead as “haters and wreckers” – all tell a story of a Labour government that would not hesitate to sacrifice Māori rights and Māori development in the interests of political expediency.
Fourteen years on from the Ngāti Apa decision that sparked the debate, the Māori vote has once again swung behind the Labour party. With all seven Māori electorates, and a large contingent of Māori now in government, there is a lot of potential and a lot of hope that this Labour government will be better for Māori than the last. Admittedly, it is not a very high bar to cross. So what do Labour need to do now that it has reclaimed power?
Ka muri. In the spirit of looking backwards, an acknowledgement and an apology is needed in recognition that they must strive to do better this time around. Labour find themselves in a fortunate position, in large due to the work undertaken by the Māori Party and National to restore the relationship between Māori and the Crown: the Foreshore and Seabed Act was repealed and replaced by new legislation restoring access to the courts with the ability to recognise Māori property rights, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was endorsed in 2010, the Māori Party were given their seat at the table and Treaty settlements have progressed at an unprecedented rate.
The principle of partnership, damaged by the previous Labour government, is being restored. There is harmony, albeit fragile, in political race relations in New Zealand at the moment. Labour has the opportunity to build on this foundation and create a more prosperous, more inclusive society. Acknowledging its previous errors in this regard is a good place to start.
In my previous column, I looked at two of the flagship Māori Party policies now at risk following their exit from parliament – Whānau Ora and the Māori land law reforms. Both of which have the potential to deliver improved social infrastructure support for Māori communities. Labour’s commitment to end child poverty and build 100,000 new houses in Auckland promises to drastically change the lives of thousands of New Zealanders. The need is even greater for Māori communities, and specific action needs to be taken to ensure that the gap between Māori and Pākehā achievement can be closed.
The national unemployment rate is 4.8% and among the lowest on record within the OECD. Māori unemployment is 11.1%, higher than that of the entire Euro Zone (including the economically depressed Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece). One third of Māori children live in poverty; over half of the prison population is Māori, and we incarcerate Māori at a rate six times that of non-Māori. Māori home ownership is around 40%, compared to 70% for Pākehā. So when Labour talk about eliminating child poverty, building homes, and creating meaningful change for all New Zealanders, it is clear that the majority of this effort needs to be addressed towards Māori. Closing the gaps should be the mantra of every Māori MP in the Labour government because a failure to address these will see the Māori vote turn elsewhere once again.
Labour like to talk of the special relationship between the party and Māori. A relationship forged with the Rātana Church in 1936 led to a 60-year domination of the Māori electorates before the majority fell to New Zealand First in 1996 and then the Māori Party in 2005. For a genuine partnership to exist, Labour needs to recognise where the State ends, and where tino rangatiratanga starts. A good place to begin would be to expand the Service Management Plan with Tūhoe which sets out the commitment of several government departments to work alongside Tūhoe to improve the social circumstances of the Tūhoe people, and work towards achieving Tamati Kruger’s vision of providing Tūhoe with the resources to eliminate welfare dependency amongst its people.
The continued engagement with the Iwi Leaders Group on a rangatira-to-rangatira basis on important issues such as water rights, environmental management, the establishment of the Kermadec fishery sanctuary, and Māori economic development is also critical to ensure that Māori rights are not overlooked again.
Momentum cannot be lost on the Treaty settlement front either. The National government settled an unprecedented number of claims over the past nine years, and a strong minister in charge of Treaty of Waitangi negotiations is required to carry this role forward. The issue front and centre is to resolve the Ngāpuhi claim and an abandonment of the “large natural grouping” policy will go a long way toward solving the current impasse between the various groups. The settlement, rumoured to amount to around $250 million, will be the largest in our history and will represent a step change for Ngāpuhi and Northland. A resolution in the next three years would be a major accomplishment.
The incoming Labour-led government provides a lot of hope to Māori that life will be better over the next three years. That same hope existed in 1999. I have chosen a good time to return to New Zealand because there is a lot of work to be done in improving our social, cultural, and economic development and we have a government which is driven by a large Māori contingent of MPs elected on the back of a resurgent vote in the Māori electorates to achieve this. And while I look forward in optimism, I look back in caution. If Labour were to only do one thing this term for Māori let it be this: please do not confiscate any more of our land.