Like Helen Clark before him, John Key has stepped into the middle of a Maori process and said, 'this far, no further'. But ignore talk of a "gaffe", this is carefully contrived politics

Was this John Key's "Shrek" moment? Almost exactly six years ago, Helen Clark let her tongue run away with her, saying that she would rather pose with an over-wooled merino than with members of the hikoi that was heading to Wellington, protesting over the foreshore and seabed.

The Labour government's approach to the foreshore and seabed was driven by politics – its need to apease Don Brash's "mainstream" Pakeha voters and its belief in collective ownership. My guess is that her flippancy was also politically motivated; if not planned, then guided by a well-trained instinct that the majority would share sympathy for a sheep over veteran Maori protesters.

But she misread the depth of feeling across Maoridom, the determination of those concerned and perhaps hadn't realised quite how the generations-long ties between Maori and Labour had been loosening in recent years. And she saw a new party evolve that has since snatched most of the Maori seats away from Labour's grasp.

In the long-term, the Shrek gag didn't play so well for her.

John Key's gag this week about being dinner had he been supping with Tuhoe rather than Ngati Porou has more than a few similarities. It too stems from his instincts – in this case the carefully honed self-deprecating humour that lies at the heart of his popularity. This is Sunny John, the affable PM.

But it also stems from his efforts to woo that "mainstream" vote. I have no inside knowledge of National's polling, but his decision to step into the middle of the Tuhoe negotiations and start kicking sand in people's faces suggests a few focus groups were making noises about National – or Key in particular – being a little too cosy with the Maori Party.

The poor taste joke at the Ngati Porou dinner may have been a "gaffe" in the eyes of some, but the context created this week hasn't happened by mistake.

Perhaps he was concerned about internal Cabinet tensions about the Tuhoe deal, or more likely he was playing to the masses. But either way he has used Tuhoe for his own political gain.

Just as Clark did before him, Key has stopped Maori in their tracks to appease tht "mainstream". Clark stopped iwi going to court to limit Maori ownership aspirations, Key has stopped Tuhoe's aspirations in much the same way.

The fact that Key has offended just one iwi, and the nature of tribal politics within Maoridom, may contain the political fallout. But in principle Key has done exactly as Clark did – stepping into the path and blocking the way, just as some Maori saw a way forward to greater self-determination.

Each Prime Minister can make a strong case for choosing to act. To take from the Treaty of Waitangi (even though Tuhoe enver signed it), they are holding the kawantanga of the Crown as supreme over the rangatiratanga of iwi. But in each case it is undoubtedly a slap-down to Maori aspirations.

Sure, Key will take a hit for that amongst some Maori, and he risks the simmering upset that Clark sparked. Tuhoe will remember his slight and will fight back. But he will have done his usual cost-benefit analysis and figured that offending some Maori who would never vote for him anyway is less important than reaching out to those in his base worried that he may be giving away too much to Maori.

Which leaves the question of how the Maori Party respond. They are too invested in this government to walk away to scream too loudly. Key, of course, has made sure of that. So they risk looking like captives while he plays politics, safe in the knowledge that he can re-build bridges over the next 18 months.

The Maori Party, therefore, are left to cuddle their tobacco tax rise and indigenous rights declaration closer to their chests, trying to reassure themselves and their supporters that such offence is worth it in the long run, and just part of the rugged game they've chosen to play.

Remember, Labour's intervention in the foreshore and seabed case spawned the Maori Party. Yet when National chooses the same approach, if only to one iwi, all they can do is mumble about putting Tuhoe negotiations at risk.

So the week ends with the Maori Party having lost face and National supporters happily chewing on the bone thrown them by the Prime Minister.

So ignore talk of the PM's gaffe this week. My guess is that he heads into Budget week a perfectly happy man. His worry now will be about the politics of next Thursday, because after all, "it's the economy, stupid".


Comments (11)

by Claire Browning on May 14, 2010
Claire Browning

He’d thrown the bone already, when he [sorry about this] pulled the rug at Cabinet. He didn’t need the funny joke.

From the soundbite on RNZ this morning, the follow-up one-liner in his speech seemed to have been delivered in much the same spirit as his favourite stand-up comic, baboom-tish routine in the House, any day at question time.

I’d have thought anyone with his fabled political antennae, and most of the rest of us without them, would have seen it was going to be an offensive joke, to some more than others maybe, and that Tuhoe especially would either take genuine offence, or at best it would give them a new reason for grievance. From that point of view, I wouldn’t have thought the wee moment of hilarity was politically worthwhile, on the whole, so that ‘gaffe’ is not a bad description for it.

I’m more interested by how it’s being reported though: “the Prime Minister made a bad joke about Tuhoe being cannibals, and ought to explain himself”. Well sure, he did, obliquely, but first and foremost the joke I heard was about himself not being, er, quite flavour of the month -- self deprecation, as he explained it.

I wonder if media would have seized on it quite so eagerly, and milked it quite so hard, if they hadn’t been a smidgin grumpy about (a) not taking the whole kit and caboodle of them to Afghanistan, and (b) Key’s office handpicking who went, rather than letting the gallery choose. It didn’t even make TVNZ news last night, except the little ticker-tape thing along the bottom [news at 8]; whereas by 7 this morning RNZ was in high moral dudgeon. So if comic genius is in the timing, it was really bad timing …

by stuart munro on May 14, 2010
stuart munro

Storm in a teacup - depends how much you buy the moral outrage - but we make the joke about Europeans too - prospective in-laws in particular. But it's on the BBC now. Key will make points off it: it's hard to play moral outrage against a grain of historical truth.

Shame lack of action on job creation won't get the same coverage, it's a sympathetic media thing - the quips are more important than substantive policy after all.

by Rachael Ford on May 14, 2010
Rachael Ford

Crikey - this is worse than Shrek, any idiot knows Maori do not appreciate sly dig humour of this kind. It's not about "self deprecating" at all, it's double barreled and also about belittling Maori mana (not just Tuhoe were recent people eaters), and if Key had any self awareness he'd know that the comment will be taken by many as a sign he deep down believes Maori to be erm... uncivilised. Cannabalism is a sensitive taboo subject to Maori, not the light dinner conversation it is to Euros. If his ears are burning now it is probably because the R word is flying around big time. That's twice he has assumed too much familiarity (misrepresenting Turia as well) and that his mistakes will be tolerated, just because he's the charming big guy. No storm in tea cup - watch this unfold as the repercussions will be long and harsh. Though probably behind closeddoors rather than via the race relations conciliator. Finlayson will probably be teaching Key the 101 of sensitivity NOW.

by Tim Watkin on May 14, 2010
Tim Watkin

Claire, quite agree that the serious question is his intervening in the negotiations, not the gag. But it's the flashy stuff like a bad joke that people remember as a kind of symbol for the deeper offence. My point is that the intervention was calculated; I'm not sure about the joke, although if he did use it twice as suggested he either a) thought it a great one-liner for the week or b) wanted it to be picked up.

Rachel, I'd suggest the contrary re the Maori sense of humour, if you can generalise about an entire ethnicity. They love sly dig humour. Billy T built a career out of it. What they don't like is having their due process interfered with.

by Rachael Ford on May 15, 2010
Rachael Ford

I know, but emphasis on "...of this kind" meaning there are exceptions!

by Craig Ranapia on May 15, 2010
Craig Ranapia

@Rachael Ford: I hope "any idiot" would know 1) Maori are no more part of a hive mind that Pakaha (or women, come to that) -- though I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the media-political complex to get their heads around that. 2) It's just a wee bit patronising and condescending to confidently pronounce on what a whole ethnic group thinks and feels. 3) That if this has you lurching towards the fainting couch, the very robust debates that go on in Maoridom might be a wee bit too much for you.  And yes, that includes some less than politically correct chipping at other iwi.

by Rachael Ford on May 15, 2010
Rachael Ford

Ooh bit touchy Craig, I was hardly characterising Maori as hive drones. In my experience, which is pretty broad (having a large Maori whanau), Keys statement would generally not go down with a good cross section of Maori, maybe some might have thought it a barrel of laughs, but not most that I know, Anyway some Maori party MP said it was not a fit statement for a Prime Minister, another has said it was unwise, so I've no reason to think my take is was wrong. I know I'd be put in severe disciplinary proceedings in my job for ever saying such a thing - but having received nigh on 500 hours cultural safety training from the likes of Sid Jackson and Irahapeti Ramsden I'd not go there.

Not fainting , have partaken in many robust debates at hui, and well aware of the iwi "chipping". But rather than just putting me on the defensive, why don't you say what you think on the topic? Am interested, will you rid me of my supposed stereotype at all? Do you or don't you think Key was any of; thoughtless, belittling, piling insult on injury, made a bad word choice, had no need to refer to his current  likely unpopularity with another tribe when speaking to another... or do you see nothing at all wrong with this picture? No cringe all?

by Craig Ranapia on May 16, 2010
Craig Ranapia

@Rachel: Yes, I've been enormously "touchy" about lazy and reductive commentary about Maori for many years.  And still making no apologies for it.

by Rachael Ford on May 16, 2010
Rachael Ford

Hello, the article is about whether this was a shrek moment. I commented that it looks like it to me. Is there some rule that we cannot comment on how we appraise Maori (in general) might respond without being labelled patronising? Or how women (in general) may respond to an issue etc. Logically there is a general/common denominator often in how groups will respond that can often be predicted - if they have no commonalities they'd not be groups. That idea from the PC book, that commenting on groups in a general way is horribly reductive, could really stifle political analysis. And activity. One could go further and say calling me patronising is reductive, calling you touchy is reductive, and calling JK racist likewise. Sometimes things can't be taken in full context if we don't know it, so there is a degree of "reductive" but not due to laziness... hence dialogue continues so as to expand the visage. Maybe we're all too precious sometimes, but I think making generalisations (whether right or wrong) is oft meant as a starting point for further discussion. Not a deliberate affront. How detailed can soundbytes or comments ever get in a practical sense.

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