In 2017 one of New Zealand’s boldest political gambles all but passed un-noticed.
Labour’s Maori MPs announced they would not stand for the party list.
With the Maori Party’s new president, Tuku Morgan, unveiling a campaign to win all seven seats, the move by the MPs seemed highly risky at best; at worst suicidal.
The architect of the move was Nanaia Mahuta who had been an enigmatic figure within Labour.
She stood unsuccessfully for the party leadership in 2014, but though she performed credibly among her caucus colleagues, she came last in the party membership and union vote.
There were whispers from within the caucus that she seemed to lack commitment to Labour; that she was haughty and disengaged.
And then Morgan persuaded King Tuheitia to endorse the Maori Party.
With Mahuta’s close connections to the Kingtanga movement, this made the campaign in Hauraki-Waikato a bitterly personal one between Mahuta and the former chair of Tainui’s executive arm, Rahui Papa.
Had Papa won and had the Maori Party retained its two seats, National might still be in Government today.
But Mahuta’s strategy, which was simply to go to the Maori electorate and argue that if constituents didn’t vote for the Labour candidates, then they would be out of Parliament altogether.
It was a bold and brave move, and it worked.
Labour won all seven Maori seats; the Maori Party was obliterated, and the Maori MPs came back to Parliament with their own mana enhanced but more importantly with a Maori caucus within Labour that the party’s leadership knew was partly why they were in Government.
And Mahuta herself returned as not only Minister of Maori Development (the Te Puni Kokiri Minister) but also having gained the increasingly important Local Government portfolio.
She believes the move to stand only in the seats has given the Maori MPs their own mandate.
“We believed that in order to have the prospect of governing we needed to secure the confidence of Maori,” she told POLITIK.
“And so the main issues we took to the election were bread and butter issues like housing.
“We weren’t happy with people sleeping in cars when they were working.
“So we weren’t happy with the working poor.
“And there were other bread and butter issues like health, education and employment.”
But what Mahuta and the MPs were talking about with the Maori electorate was not an entirely traditional Labour response.
It was about more than simply more money.
“We believed that we could do things differently if we addressed bread and butter issues first and then we could partner into a space with Maori in a post-settlement context that could derive more benefits and more fairness.
“We wanted a more inclusive economy that would share a greater proportion of the country’s wealth.
“We haven’t reneged on that commitment.”
It is that commitment to a partnership with Maori communities that she constantly returns to in the course of a half hour long interview.
Perhaps ironically for an MP often identified with the left of the Labour Party, she points to the 1984 Labour Government as the origin of much of what is happening now; the 1984 Hui Taumata that looked at Maori economic development and the 1988 Puao Te Ata Tu report that looked at racism within the-then Social Welfare Department she sees as two key moves from that era.
The Puao te Ata Tu report emphasised the need for central government to share power with Maori and for the government to harness initiatives from within the Maori community.
So following on from those themes, Mahuta has set Te Puni Kokiri four main area to focus on.
And each one involves a partnership with local communities.
She starts with whanau enterprise and community development.
“There are opportunities to go into high deprivation communities — like the Moerewas of this world — and start to work alongside them.
“If you go to pockets of these areas there could be some real innovations that occur.
“They are coming up with solutions that are not only innovative, but they are starting to go into new areas of business community enterprise that creates and jobs and opportunities.
“I think that is an exciting landscape.”
In terms of economic development, she sees the treaty settlements of the past 20 years plus the provincial Growth Fund as two catalysts which work with both the government and private sector to get some economic development into the kind of deprived areas she is focussing on with her social programmes.
“The third priority is around culture and language, identity and Maoridom; the core of who we are as Maori and also how we impact our story and our narrative for New Zealand and increasingly in the economic space how we lever off the story to trade opportunities.”
Tourism goes hand and hand with any cultural revival.
“What I’ve noticed when I’ve travelled overseas is you become more attuned to that.
“Even if it’s at the corner pub having a few beers and then you meet another Kiwi and then everybody all of a sudden they’re singing a song from New Zealand.
“We see Waitangi Day or Anzac Day overseas, and they make New Zealanders really proud.
“This is our culture you know, and people hold on to it.”
With that she believes goes language and she was impressed with the enthusiasm that the country last week embraced Maori language week.(Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori)
“The approach that we’re taking under this Government to broaden access to modern language for many more new Zealanders is a positive thing and it ensures that we continue to be the country of inclusive party and understanding that while we are diverse, we’ve got a good foundation, the Maori culture, to be able to platform our connections to other cultures.
But she argues that culture goes further; it is also about how the Government engages with Maori.
“There s also the way in which the government agencies are engaging on significant issues’ for example, fresh water.”
There is also an emphasis on young people, particularly connecting them with the digital space but the mere mention of fresh water highlights what it is likely to be the biggest issue defining the Crown’s relationship with Maori during this term of government.
Environment Minister David Parker is expected to produce a National Environmental Standard on freshwater some time this year.
To accommodate the critical Maori interest in fresh water he has established Te Kahui Wai Maori with an impressive membership of Maori scientists, environmentalists and leaders to advise on how to ensure Maori have their share of water rights as the Crown begins to allocate them.
The group was a thinly disguised move to avoid dealing with the Iwi Leaders’ Forum which many in Labour believe is too strongly aligned to the Maori Party and National.
But even within the government as a whole, there are worries that leaving the Iwi Leaders out of the process may not be a good idea.
Mahuta is going to be at the heart of this battle wearing two hats; first, obviously, as Minister of Maori Development but also as Minister of Local Government where she presides over what is called the “three waters” policy which deals with the need to clean up fresh water, ensure the safety (made more urgent by the Havelock North poisoning) of drinking water and dealing with the discharge of both stormwater and sewage.
It is a fraught battle because it will involve the aggregation of many smaller local government infrastructure services.
Mahuta has already found herself at loggerheads on this with a former Labour Minister, Lianne Dalziel, the Mayor of Christchurch.
But a presentation to last year’s Infrastructure New Zealand conference won Mahuta widespread support from the engineers and contractors at the conference who recognised her as someone on top of her brief, and they liked her low key and often gentle style of engagement.
She is, however, determined and once again, just as she has emphasised in her Maori development role, she comes back to a partnership with local communities.
“Local government has said aggregation of water services delivery will mean amalgamation and I say it doesn’t have to.
“And if we keep having the conversation we can design a service delivery model which keeps at its heart these key things that local communities are concerned about while delivering better delivery of services.”
Mahuta is a realist. She knows that no government can change things overnight, but she is happy with this government’s first year in office
“There are all sorts of things that we can point the electorate to that the government has achieved just in its first year to say we’re heading in the right direction.
“Have we achieved everything that they wanted in year one.
“No, but I don’t think anyone really expects that we could turn the ship around in a year.
“It’s going to take some time, but we’ll build the confidence in trust based on what we’re delivering to our people. “