A couple of months ago Cabinet Minister Tariana Turia did what few imagined she would have the courage to do. The quietly spoken great-grandmother told the Prime Minister she was “getting off the bus.” She and the Maori people she represents would “no longer travel as passengers on someone else’s bus, unhappy with the direction and the road on which the bus is travelling, but afraid to get off. Turia resigned her post, quit the Labour Party, and formed her own indigenous party.
Perhaps the Prime Minister had believed, like the nation’s leading media personality, that Turia was “a bag of lard…” “…all talk and no walk” and too attached to “the cars and the perks” to act upon principle. Last Monday however the Prime Minister and the nation watched as Turia returned to parliament – this time as the victor in the bi-election her resignation had forced.
Tariana Turia’s impressive win at the polls signals interesting times because “the bus” Turia has created- the Maori Party- has the potential to hold the balance of power after New Zealand’s next general election. The dilemma Tariana Turia described, of being a passenger on some-one else’s bus, is one familiar to Maori, in politics as in life. As only 15 percent of the population, Maori struggle to gain political influence and consequently have levels of unemployment, ill-health, imprisonment and educational under-achievement that are far worse than non-Maori. (http://www.tpk.govt.nz/maori/work/unemployment.asp#educational)
Turia, a life-long activist for indigenous rights, hoped to ameliorate her peoples plight when she entered parliament less than six years ago. She quickly rose to cabinet level where her networks amongst poor Maori and community welfare agencies were invaluable to a Labour Government that had promised to “close the gaps” between Maori and non-Maori.
It did not take long however before the Labour bus began to change direction and Turia began to feel discomforted. First Turia was chided for her forthright descriptions of New Zealand’s colonial history and forbidden make speeches un-censored by party bosses. Then, under pressure from a growing anti-Maori mood within the country, Labour renamed and then buried it’s “closing the gaps” policy. Maori were further troubled when the Government began to signal that it was prepared to re-define Government’s obligations to the nation’s founding document, a treaty between white settlers and Maori. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed by Maori and the British Crown in 1840, guaranteed indigenous rights in exchange for British governance, but generations of Maori have struggled to keep Governments committed to the document. Indeed, for most of the nations history, the treaty was cast aside and Maori rights trampled upon. Only in the last thirty years has the document’s status been raised, a process begun by a Labour Government. Earlier this year however, panicked by plummeting polls amidst a nation-wide race debate, the Labour Government took an action that seemed to negate the Treaty. It legislated to extinguish the right of any Maori to take a case to the courts claiming customary rights over areas of foreshore and sea-bed.
It was this final action which caused Tariana Turia to leave government. More importantly the Government’s measure galvanised a united Maori anger not seen in a generation. The expression of that anger was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital and the formation of the Maori Party – a broad coalition of Maori across tribal boundaries. Tariana Turia’s arrival at parliament signalled the arrival of this new political force. It is a phenomenon whose time may have come.
Until recently a Parties representing minority groups have struggled to have influence in New Zealand. A first-past-the-post system of voting operated up until 1996 and ensured that two major parties completely dominated the political landscape. It meant that since the nineteen thirties Maori sought recognition of their plight from Labour, in exchange for loyalty. If Labour won at the ballot box Maori could expect some pay-off, but as Turia observed they were always passengers, subject to the whims of those in control. In the nineteen eighties it was Maori who bore the brunt of Labour’s Friedmanite economic experiment. In exchange for their votes Maori experienced the destruction of workplaces and communities.
In 1996 however, New Zealanders changed their electoral system (partly in reaction to the economic rationalism of both major parties) and voted for a new system of mixed menber proportional representation. This prompted a proliferation of smaller parties with influence in parliament, including a party of the extreme right and a Green Party. The creation of a Maori Party has long been talked about as the next logical occurance, especially since the New Zealand constitution reserves seven parliamentary seats for Maori in the 120 seat chamber. It is these seven seats that Turia’s Maori Party is threatening to wrest from Labour at next year’s General election and more representation may be gained by contesting ordinary seats, thereby pushing up the party’s share of the overall vote.
Over the coming months voters can expect plenty of posturing and manoevring as the players prepare for an election where race will be a key issue. The opposition National Party has already staked out its position as the party wanting to remove the Treaty of Waitangi as a factor in policy-making and governance. It has also raised the possibility of discarding the Maori seats. Both ideas resonate strongly with white New Zealanders who resent what they see as “special treatment” given to Maori. Labour is caught in a difficult position as it tries to stem the drift of votes to National while holding the Maori vote.
Meanwhile Tariana Turia and her colleagues will continue to tap into a rising tide of Maori nationalism and build a movement. On the Maori Party bus are many of Maoridom’s most respected leaders. Helping chart the course is the country’s most experienced left-wing political strategist, Matt McCarten. It looks like being an interesting ride.