On the Mana Party win
Hone Harawira's win of Te Tai Tokerau represents a huge victory for the Mana Party, and one that will expose the ignorance and latent undercurrents of racism that still exist in New Zealand. It is a move that broadens the political base for Māori, and one that should not be underestimated by Pākehā commentators who have largely critiqued it as a near loss to Labour and a potentially catastrophic signifier for the Māori Party in the lead up to the General Election. Such characterizations underplay the historical significance of the emergence of Mana's emergence, and also overplay Labour's importance in other electorates.
Harawira has always been a controversial figure for both Māori and Pākehā, but for entirely different reasons. Harawira is straight-talking, representing a particular discourse of resistance that still runs strong in many parts of Māori society that Pākehā have come to believe is already assimilated despite a long history of grievances. Picking up the Sunday Star Times this week was a case in point on our collective amnesia when it comes to racism: Michael Laws has stoked the fire again by entering the debate over the dog in Peter Jackson's film Dambusters in a column that compares Harawira to the National Front. Subsequently the paper has a deluge of letters arguing for a return to times when we should call our animals "nigger", "darkie" and "Sambo". We live in a country where people are happy to let our media figures still work after calling people these names, so I'm not certain why there is such a surprise or outcry at Harawira's emergence as a resistance figure and politician. Before the cries of PC gone mad are levelled, let's just bear in mind that similar cases of media outspurts have resulted in people being fined in the US and the UK, and can result in legal action in France. In the UK, the press deliberately ignores the BNP in coverage, yet in New Zealand it embraces it to drive up ratings. It should be telling that there is far more outrage against Harawira's "white mofo" comments in a private email than over Deaker's very public "nigger" comments. Harawira can be inflammatory, but it is hardly unexpected in a country where this is just the contents of another weekend paper, talkback radio show, or television show.
Harawira's win in Te Tai Tokerau in this kind of political climate is significant. He was up against the outrage of mainstream New Zealand, the force of Labour's political machine - which in the absence of any other elections was aimed at securing the Māori vote. If Harawira had not chosen to resign, he would have faced accusation from voters that he was staying in a seat that he did not have a mandate for. This resulted in a campaign without a lot of money backing it, with the North dotted in Labour billboards and few Mana ones to be seen. He must have known in advance he was facing a tough campaign, as despite the popular notion that he was calling a by-election to feather his pocket, smart pundits had already done the math and predicted he had little to gain - in fact, more to potentially lose in this climate. He would have known that the Māori Party were likely to run against him. He would have also known that despite the Botany by-election National were involved with just recently, he would have been attacked as an "expensive waste of time" by politicians like the Prime Minister.
Labour's substantial result in Tai Tokerau was the result of a number of factors, and ones that do not necessarily replicate across other electorates. First, they had the advantage of infrastructure (which Mana and Māori were lacking in). Second, they had a very popular candidate in Kelvin Davis. Predictably, the by-election meant a lower turn out from voters than in a general election. While Davis retained more of his voting bloc than Hone, Hone had twice the number of voters in the 2008 election, signalling that it is likely that he will again attract significant numbers. In terms of party votes, last time Māori were trailing Labour. This can be attributed to strategic voting in the region, which is mirrored across the rest of the Māori seats, where even when Māori Party candidates won the vote, the party votes for Labour were 10-20% higher.
So what does this mean for Labour's claim that it will clean up the Māori seats in the election? In Tāmaki Makaurau, Shane Jones does have a strong candidacy, with recent polls showing that he is beginning to erode Pita Sharples support as a much more popular candidate than Louisa Wall. However, this pattern is unlikely to be replicated across all of the Māori seats. If Goff attacks Hone further, he runs the risk of alienating Māori voters who are still unhappy over Labour's somewhat abysmal historical record in maintaining the status quo for Māori issues, but decreasing the figures of unemployment. If the Māori Party keep attacking Hone counter to principles of kotahitanga and manaakitanga, they also run the risk of alienating voters. For many voters, Turia's attack on Tipene as her own candidate would have been seen as just as provocative as Hone's outbursts. It is clear that as soon as the Māori Party entered the equation, many voters were swayed by the notion of a candidate that represented Māori concerns rather than the Labour-lite version for Māori voters. Labour are still likely to get the highest percentage of the party vote among Māori voters, which also calls the Māori Party's strategic alliance with National into question, especially for those who are hardest hit by economic recessions.
Mana's entry into the game is likely to create interesting consequences. First of all, it holds Labour much more to its principles. Hone represents the return of the repressed for their fumbled Foreshore and Seabed Bill. Unlike the Māori Party, Annette Sykes and Harawira are much more likely to speak out. In some ways, the arrival of Mana benefits the Māori Party in the same way that the Greens benefit - juxtaposed with Mana, the Māori Party looks much less radical having cut its teeth and moved through all the challenges that a party of indigenous people face in establishing themselves in New Zealand. I'm thinking here of the continual headline/question that pervaded most of the Pākehā commentary when they formed - can Māori be politicians? Mana is going through this now, but the Māori Party's success will be grounded in their ability to break out of the antagonistic relationship they share with their former colleagues.