The Māori party's policy for land rights and self-governance is not to be ignored | Claire Robinson

By Claire Robinson

In an election campaign that has so far been largely a bidding contest over who can fund the most “shovel-ready projects”, create the most jobs and support the most apprentices post-Covid, many commentators have bemoaned the absence of any visionary debate about the type of New Zealand we want to become.

It was therefore refreshing to see the Māori party announce its Mana Motuhake policy this week. As far as timing goes, the policy hasn’t gained a lot of media attention. The news has been dominated by the Serious Fraud Office’s charging of two individuals in connection with the New Zealand First Foundation, a new poll and the second leaders’ debate. Many also think the Māori party is inconsequential in 2020, sitting only on 1–1.5% party vote support in public opinion polls, and not looking like they are going to win back any electorate seats.

However, this new policy is not something to be ignored.

The Māori party’s policy is a 25-year way forward to improve the outcomes of whānau Māori that the mainstream major parties have failed to deliver on. It is based on Māori asserting their right to self-management, self-determination and self-governance over all their domains. Amongst its main recommendations is an end to mainstream management of matters Māori, abolishing full and final Treaty of Waitangi settlements, buying back land for whānau, hapū and iwi, handing back all conservation land to hapū and iwi, and all Māori joining the Māori electorate roll over the next three years.

None of these ideas are new but combined with a demand for a separate Māori parliament, the policy is the most potentially transformative platform we have seen from any party this election season.

A separate parliament was one of the recommendations of Matike Mai – the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation in 2016. This was the culmination of a long discussion Māori people had been having about what a treaty-based constitution should look like, and five years of hui held across New Zealand that stressed the need for a new values-based conception of politics.

While launching the idea of a separate Māori parliament, with 15 to 17 seats and control over $20bn of annual “self-managed” spending, Māori party co-leader John Tamihere said mainstream control of things Māori had been an “abject failure”, after the country was settled by consent, not by conquest, via the Treaty of Waitangi.

Fixing things would require “shifting the money from non-Māori control and hands, and directly into Māori hands”. The Māori parliament would be modelled on the Irish, Scottish and Welsh parliaments. “Westminster did not work for the Scots or the Irish – Wellington definitely does not work for Māori”, noted Tamihere.

With a treaty signed between Māori and the colonising Crown in 1840, New Zealand is in a unique position. To even be able to have a serious discussion about political self determination is a luxury that supporters of the black lives matter movements around the globe can only dream of.

And yet, it’s still the sort of policy that sends a shiver down the spine of New Zealand’s dominant political parties, which have always interpreted any claim for the right to determine the future of Māori, by Māori, for Māori, in terms of what mainstream New Zealand might lose, not what Māori could gain.

People watch the sun rise from the Treaty Grounds in Waitangi, New Zealand. The Mana Motuhake policy is based on Māori asserting their right to self-management, self-determination, and self-governance over all their domains.
People watch the sun rise from the Treaty Grounds in Waitangi, New Zealand. The Mana Motuhake policy is based on Māori asserting their right to self-management, self-determination, and self-governance over all their domains. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Between 1938 and 1960, our major political parties weren’t so afraid to acknowledge that Māori had separate political interests to Pākehā. In the 1960 election campaign, the National party even claimed Māori affairs was the biggest single issue in the party’s 1960 election policy, promising to “Uphold the principle of equality between Māori and Pākehā in accordance with the spirit and letter of the Treaty of Waitangi …[and] acknowledge that the Māori ranks with the Pākehā in all things.”

After 1960, however, the word equality largely disappeared from major party campaign platforms. The more the New Zealand government was required to interact with international organisations and conduct trade negotiations after Britain joined the Common Market, the more the major political parties competed over definitions of nationhood and what made us globally exceptional.

Both major parties framed us unequivocally as one people; as New Zealanders. The term “Kiwi” became a way of binding the country together with an overarching collective identity in order to legitimise New Zealand as a nation state. Any notions of equality were in terms of legal notions of citizenship not in treaty commitments to partnership.

If coming together as a nation state required all voters to sign up to being Kiwis, Māori were increasingly positioned by the powerful political parties as not Kiwi. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the idea that the treaty grievance process could be rorted by Māori and others became a popular election platform, for the minor parties particularly. ACT claimed that it was the only party that could “fix” the treaty. New Zealand First denounced Māori for acquiring undeserved legal privileges as citizens that Pākehā were not getting. Both parties argue to this day that the Māori seats should be abolished on the grounds there is no room for separatism.

Though refraining from engaging in the more overtly racist attacks of the minor parties, the major parties have nonetheless determined that if they can co-opt and absorb Māori interests into their broader platforms and attract more Māori as mainstream MPs, they can neutralise Māori demands for separate forms of self-determination.

The idea of a Māori parliament may still be an idea on the periphery, waiting for its moment. But after 180 years of waiting, the stubborn persistence of inequality and poverty still affecting Māori suggests the time is ripe for Māori to start to exercise tino rangatiratanga and realise their own social, cultural and political systems so they can look after their people without total dependence on the state.

Whether the Māori party makes it back into parliament in 2020 or not, this call is only going to get louder.

Claire Robinson is professor of communication design at Massey University