Maori king risks losing mana by insisting on absolute power
What is a king? If history is any guide, he is the man other men follow, the man with the best explanation or, failing that, the best excuse. The sort of man who stands at the beginning of a tale - a carver of kingdoms, a founder of dynasties.
Duke William of Normandy - William the Conqueror - stands as the prototype, the archetype, of this kind of king. The strong war leader, the dux bellorum, who transforms his sword into a sceptre.
But how are such men reproduced? How does the king/father guarantee his subjects a successor fit to rule them? Always it is the lottery of succession that undoes the political efficacy of monarchy or, as the 18th-century writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine put it: "One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion."
The creation of the kingitanga (king movement) is one of the greatest compliments Maori ever paid to Pakeha. By creating parallel political structures to those of the colonial administration, the beleaguered inland tribes of the North Island hoped to develop a political authority equal to that of the settler government. The distant British monarch and her local representatives would be required to deal with an indigenous king. It was an imitative gesture which alarmed every bit as much as it flattered the Pakeha politicians of the late 1850s.
The colonial government's misgivings were unwarranted. The first Maori king, Potatau, was no Duke William. He was a man of prestigious lineage, rich in accumulated mana, but his kingship came to him via the nomination of his peers, not from victory on the battlefield.
The kingitanga itself was not the product of fighters but of thinkers, educated men such as Wiremu Tamihana, known as "the kingmaker". From its very beginning, the Maori kingdom served as both symbol and statement: a plea for racial equality, due process and ending the illegal alienation of tribal lands.
Needless to say, it was roundly condemned by settler politicians as both a barrier and a threat to the colony's advancement. It took 18,000 troops to break the Maori kingdom, but break it the settler government did.
That it has survived at all, let alone into the 21st century, is explicable only in terms of its evolution from a parallel political system into a mystical hereditary taonga. For more than a century, the Maori monarchs have passed through the walls of the settler state with the ease of a phantom: holographic witnesses to the festering injustices of the past.
Such ethereal figures need to be very careful how they interact with the mundane world of pith and power. Like its British counterpart, the Maori monarchy has taken special care to be in the world but not of it. Nothing has been attempted which risked breaking the magic spell.
The reward, all $170 million of it, came in the form of the Waikato-Tainui settlement, over whose determined negotiators the Maori queen spread the feather cloak of her carefully nurtured mana.
Sadly, Waikato-Tainui's settlement with the Crown of New Zealand has turned out to be at the expense of its own. The ill-considered choices of Dame Te Atairangikaahu's son and heir, King Tuheitia, are steadily proving the truth of Paine's assessment of hereditary monarchy. More and more it seems the lioness has whelped an ass.
Urged on by his courtiers and favourites, King Tuheitia shows every sign that he intends to rule as well as reign.
Te Kauhanganui, the kingitanga parliament, established by his predecessor King Tawhiao more than a century ago, has fought to secure the Waikato-Tainui people's interest in the settlement's millions, only to witness its courageous leader, Tania Martin, brought low by palace intrigue and political ambush.
Urged on by his counsellors, King Tuheitia now seeks to become an absolute monarch: wielding full veto powers, free to summon and prorogue his parliament at will.
The Crown of New Zealand will not tolerate so blatant a pretender to its throne. If the Maori king aspires to be a politician, then he must divest himself of the mystery and mana of his ancestors and endure the audit of democracy like any other citizen - Pakeha or Maori.