Commentary: John Minto's To The Front column
I hadn’t been to Waitangi for at least a decade so it was refreshing to take part in the annual commemorations there over the past two days. The events on the day are still predominantly Maori in nature with Pakeha hopelessly outnumbered in terms of their proportion of the population.
However it’s a vibrant, inspiring day with sports events, official ceremonies and a waka pageant as well as absorbing and stimulating political discussion. If you haven’t been there on Waitangi Day before put it on your must-do list for next year.
The burning media issue was the relationship between Maori Party MP for Te Taitokerau Hone Harawira and the Maori Party leadership. The media reported Harawira had upstaged Party leader Pita Sharples on the eve of Waitangi Day by delivering a state of the nation speech an hour before Sharples did the same as Maori Party leader.
This is mischievous reporting because Hone was just one of a half dozen speakers at a forum who were each asked to give their thoughts on the “state of the Maori nation” and respond to questions and discussion. It’s drawing a long bow to imply, as most media outlets did, that this was deliberately orchestrated to upstage Pita Sharples. Nevertheless “Harawira insults Maori Party again” was the headline on Stuff with his speech described as “inflammatory”. Sharples bought into the media spin saying “He’s got to make his decision to be part of the caucus or cut himself loose.”
The other aspect which the media should have reported clearly was the context in which each man gave their speeches because this highlighted more than anything else the problems and divisions within the Maori Party.
Harawira gave his speech to an open public forum on the Te Tii marae grounds where everyone and anyone were welcome. The audience of approx 200 was mainly Maori from around the country (although predominantly from the North) alongside a smattering of Pakeha. It was unrehearsed and delivered without notes in the best political tradition of Waitangi Day and was then subject to question and debate from the audience. It was hardly a radical speech and simply reflected the majority Maori view on a host of current political issues. It expressed opposition to the latest GST increase and the proposed foreshore and seabed law change; stopping the proposed asset sales; resistance to attacks on workers and beneficiaries and proposals for the Maori Party to hold talks with Labour and the Greens. Hone went so far as to suggest party discussion on forging a strategic alliance with the Greens on the basis that Green Party policies are closest to his party’s policies and such an alliance would in all likelihood prevent either National or Labour from governing alone for the foreseeable future. (I’m not convinced on this last point because faced with being forced significantly to the left many of the Labour leadership would prefer to go into a grand coalition with National as has occurred recently in Europe in similar circumstances)
Pita Sharples however delivered his speech to a closed, invitation-only dinner organized by Prime Minister John Key at a flash venue with the main iwi leaders and others of the political and economic elite in attendance. Sharples did the same thing the following day when he delivered a speech to the Prime Ministers Waitangi Day breakfast. Again it was an invitation-only event where he was shielded from any possibility protest. He predictably defended the Maori Party leadership view that the relationship with National was delivering results. He avoided admitting that for most Maori the changes under National have been disastrous. He also failed to acknowledge that National is using the Maori Party to provide political cover for vicious attacks on workers and beneficiaries.
Throughout the weekend Pita Sharples declined to attend any public political debate or discussion. Like National and Labour leaders Sharples fronted up for the formal welcome at Te Tii marae but quickly retired to the company of the political and Iwi elite with whom he has become associated.
The conclusion is unmistakable. Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia have cast their lot with National and the Iwi leaders groups. It’s the Maori equivalent of Pakeha politicians taking their lead from the Business Roundtable’s Roger Kerr.
This was starkly illustrated two weeks back when the Maori Party gave cautious support to National’s asset sales programme because corporate Maoridom want a stake in the assets. Hone has spoken unequivocally against the proposed privatizations and his view reflects not just majority Maori opinion but opinion across the entire country. Because of this the unelected and largely unaccountable Iwi leaders groups are working hard with National Leader John Key to grease the path for Hone’s exit from the party.
There was a time when Pita Sharples would have been happy to engage in public debate at Waitangi and would have looked sceptically and critically at corporate Maoridom. Not so now. Along with Tariana Turia he has been seduced by the soft seats in a Tory Prime Minister’s office and the baubles of political power. It’s a path well trodden before by politicians of all races and stripes over the years but disappointing it has been so quick and so complete as in the case of Sharples.
There is a lot at stake for New Zealand in this division between the Maori Party leadership and the Maori corporate elite on the one hand and Hone Harawira and flaxroots Maoridom on the other. The debate on this political polarity has been underway for some time within Maoridom with prominent Maori lawyer and activist Annette Sykes articulating deep concerns when she gave the Bruce Jesson Memorial lecture last year in Auckland. Pakeha should catch up with the debate here on Scoop.