Labour's bold play for the Maori vote

It took the Labour Party an age to release its Maori policy statement, but the wait may have been worth it. Guest Pundit Morgan Godfery discusses Labour's risky move

With the tea tapes dominating political discussion at the moment, you’re forgiven if you find this post a little bland. I’m going to deal with a dry topic – Maori policy.

Last Friday I called the Labour Party on their failure to influence Maori political discourse. Labour still exercises a strong hold on the Maori vote and the party’s Maori caucus is well respected so they can, to a certain extent, afford to play the invisible man.

However, the invisible act was beginning to wear thin. Labour owed, or owes, it to its constituents to make an effort to engage in Maori political discourse. After all, it’s easy to influence. Case in point, the Maori media went crazy after my column was published and Labour was forced to release the party's policy statement later that day. Which brings me to the focus of this post, the policy statement itself.

On the whole, it’s pretty standard. Commitments to restoring the training incentive allowance, removing GST off some foods, establishing a tax free threshold and so on. There are generic commitments to “improving the standard of living of all Maori” and “support(ing) and encourage(ing) research and development initiatives”. But interestingly the policy statement isn’t totally generic or, as John Pagani put it, “waffle”.

Hidden within the statement are a few gems. For example, Labour’s commitment to reintroduce Maori trade training. Many Maori hold a romantic view of the former scheme and there have been numerous calls for a new scheme to be introduced. This policy alone may help the party secure their share of the Maori vote. And this:

“Labour will ensure there is a statutory requirement to adequately consult with iwi with regard to all mineral exploration and extraction”.

Oil drilling, hell even oil prospecting, is a major concern for coastal iwi and this commitment will go along way to solidifying Labour’s support among coastal iwi.

Labour has, along with its promise to impose a moratorium on drilling, really outgunned the Maori Party here. The Maori Party is promising a moratorium only, not a statutory requirement for adequate consultation. Labour has the more attractive policy combination and this will go some way to repairing the wounds Labour created with coastal iwi when the party passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004.

As I told Waatea News, the highlight for me is this:

Labour will incorporate Maori notions of justice into the current justice framework

Admittedly, this is broadly worded enough that Labour can be tokenistic, or (as I hope) they can be revolutionary. Labour could increase Marae hearings, which some criticise as an encroachment on Maori rangatiratanga, and claim to be incorporating Maori notions of justice into the current framework. Or, alternatively, Labour could be revolutionary and take active steps to forming a parallel justice system – one of the great fears of conservative New Zealand may I add (the whole steps to separatism thing).

Moana Jackson recommended this in his excellent report for the Ministry of Justice in 1988. Jackson concluded that the justice system was failing Maori and Maori would be better served under a parallel system that reflected Maori notions of justice.

The then-Labour Party Minister of Justice, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, met the idea with a negative response and let the issue smoulder on the sidelines. The issue flared again under National Party Justice Minister Sir Doug Graham who, quite predictably, dismissed the idea. On and off over the past decade academics, Moana Jackson most notably, and political parties, most notably the Greens in 2009, have tried to reignite the issue. Obviously, they’ve met little success.

This is until, perhaps, now. Although it is a loose commitment Labour’s statement does provide fuel for the fire. It is an open appeal to Maori to say, ‘hey – we’re not scared of saying we’re for Maori’. That’s the perception Labour needs to bust; the perception that they’re too scared to come out for Maori. Remember when they renamed all of that Maori funding when Don Brash was whipping up a storm. And, the obvious one of course, the foreshore and seabed controversy. This led to the formation of the Maori Party and and the demolition of Labour’s monopoly on the Maori vote. Maybe the above statement is the first signal that Labour intends to have a serious crack at reclaiming the Maori vote.

I’m amazed the party hierarchy let that one slip in to be honest. Nothing scares the punters more than separate Maori this and separate Maori that and privilege here and privilege there.

I guess the party is prioritising the Maori vote over, for want of a less offensive term, the redneck vote. Or, just maybe, the Maori caucus slipped it in unnoticed. Either way, I think it could turn into an uncomfortable issue for Labour. Do they, on the one hand, extend the olive branch to Maori voters or, in traditional Labour fashion, decide to placate the conservative vote.

On the whole, Labour’s policy is neither here nor there. There are some good bits, some great bits like the above and some generic platitudes. Either way, at least Maori have something to vote for now.