Maori politics takes backward step

I'M OUT: Shane Jones gives his valedictory speech to Parliament last week.
I'M OUT: Shane Jones gives his valedictory speech to Parliament last week.

Maori politics appears to be taking a backward step - a move punctuated by the departure of Shane Jones from Parliament last Wednesday.

He was one of the few remaining Maori politicians who had a level of recognition and respect across many Maori communities, who could represent issues of importance to Maori while still maintaining his party political integrity. He is a Maori leader first and foremost who found his way, or in Shane's case more likely planned his way, in to a senior role in Parliament.

There have been times when the Maori politicians and Maori leadership have been synonymous with each other.

The late 19th and early 20th century saw the likes of Peter Buck, or Te Rangi Hiroa, Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare and James Carroll in Parliament. These were guys who were also on the ground in Maori communities leading change.

They were the vanguard of Maori academics having graduated from university and committed to putting their talents to use for the benefit of all Maori.

Collectively they were responsible for reforming health standards in Maori villages, improved access to medical services for Maori, the retention of traditional Maori knowledge, a renaissance of Maori arts and a pragmatic partnership approach to national politics. Without this brief period of leadership Maori development could have been decades behind where it is now.

An earlier generation saw only those classified as holding chiefly status entering the House of Representatives. This cohort fronted up on the cusp of old and new world realities. Generally born in to a conflict-ridden pre- European Maori world as young men they were engaged with the age-old Western ideology of democracy, government and institutional bureaucracy.

They were champions of Maori rights, particularly as they pertained to land and the wellbeing of their people. This was a time when there was no payment for being in Parliament and all associated travel costs and expenses were expected to be carried by the representatives themselves. Without the dedicated support of their people or access to personal wealth, which was less likely at that time, acting as a member of Parliament was unachievable.

Names such as Ngatata, Taiaroa, Tomoana and Parata were all associated with the Maori seats in the second half of the 19th century but they were also present on a national platform as Maori leaders in their own right.

By the mid-20th century things started to change dramatically as party politics and partnerships between Maori, the Ratana Church and Labour dominated for nearly 50 years.

This was driven by Maori, who were increasingly aligning themselves with their fellow Pakeha workmates, being offered the opportunity to vote for a Maori representative who also championed their working class rights. The obsession with Maori land rights was no longer dominant amongst the rank-and- file, recently urbanised, Maori.

Instead they were concerned about their incomes, the quality of their housing, owning a decent car and the health and education of their children. Things that seemed unattainable unless the machinery of Parliament was forced to consider their needs.

Now Maori are present in all corners of the House whether they are in a Maori seat or not. Being a Maori leader is no longer a prerequisite to be a member of Parliament.

Maori MPs are likely to attach themselves to a party and simply contribute just another vote as opposed to being a dedicated voice on Maori issues. That is not meant to be a criticism of individuals like Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges or Winston Peters. They are career politicians first as opposed to champions or leaders of Maori issues.

Anyone who knows the background of those like Hekia Parata, Shane Jones and the soon-to-arrive Kelvin Davis will know that they have often put Maori issues before matters of national importance. And this is what we are at threat of losing.

Love him or hate him, Shane Jones brought a character of leadership to the House that they can ill afford to lose. And if the closest he can get to the top is number five on the opposition bench then Maori leadership is better off outside of the House engaging via powerful lobby groups such as the Iwi Leaders Forum.

With the pending departure of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia the established leadership diminishes even further. The names floating about as potential candidates for this year's election are generally unknown outside of their own limited circles.

A Maori Party lineup of barely recognisable names up against a bemuddled and confused Mana Internet Party doesn't instil a lot of confidence in Maori voters that their vote is going to be an investment in outstanding Maori leadership.

If you are on the Maori electoral roll don't expect to be spoilt for choice at this year's election. It is the best argument yet for abolishing the seats altogether.

The Press