The five days allotted to Waitangi 2018 by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can only be accounted as time well spent. Maori votes were critical to Labour being able to construct a governing coalition with NZ First and the Greens.
Ms Ardern is well aware that maintaining – and if possible building on – the tangata whenua support that gave Labour a clean sweep of all seven Maori seats in 2017 will be crucial to securing her government’s re-election in 2020.
It is to be hoped that Ms Ardern understands the extent to which she and the Labour Party are indebted to the strategic insight of Andrew Little and his Chief-of-Staff, Matt McCarten, for the 2017 result.
At the core of that insight was an acceptance that Labour and the Greens, alone, would be unlikely to secure sufficient votes to govern alone, or in coalition with NZ First, unless the National Party was first stripped of as many of its potential coalition partners as possible.
The means adopted to secure that outcome were by no means universally welcomed within Labour’s ranks. In particular, the recruitment of its principal human instruments, Greg O’Connor and Willie Jackson, outraged more than a few of Labour’s social-liberals.
As a former President of the NZ Police Association, O’Connor was derided as a “fascist” by some social-liberals, and his selection for Ohariu, the seat held by the leader of the United Future Party, Peter Dunne, for 36 years, was lambasted as a sop to “Waitakere Man” – the socially-conservative element of Labour’s electoral base.
The response to the recruitment of Willie Jackson was even more vociferous. Labour’s feminists recalled the broadcaster’s role in the “Roastbusters” media controversy of 2013 and spoke out angrily against Little’s decision to more-or-less guarantee Jackson a winnable position on Labour’s Party List.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, Little’s and McCarten’s foresight is remarkable.
By positioning O’Connor in Ohariu, Labour confronted Dunne with a candidate uniquely qualified to attract the support of that electorate’s socially-conservative voters. With just the slightest swing to Labour, Dunne’s position would become untenable. Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to the Labour leadership, by delivering the required surge in Labour’s support, duly spooked Dunne into announcing his retirement from parliamentary politics.
National’s potential coalition partners were reduced by one.
Willie Jackson’s role in eliminating the next partner – the Maori Party – was pivotal. As the man appointed to run Labour’s campaign in the Maori seats, he took the leaden offer from all seven candidates to foreswear any ranking on the Party List and turned it into gold. The battle for the Maori electorate was reduced to an all-or-nothing fight to the finish between Labour the Maori Party.
How those seats were won for Labour is of crucial importance to the way Ms Ardern and her colleagues govern New Zealand.
In essence, Willie Jackson and his team ran an unabashedly class-based campaign in the Maori seats. In terms of tone and imagery, their propaganda celebrated and spoke directly to the lives and aspirations of working-class Maori families. In startling contrast to Labour’s appeal to the general electorate, the party’s message to the Maori electorate was all about working-class jobs, working-class aspirations and working-class pride.
Bearing comparison with the rhetoric of its storied past, Labour’s message to Maori voters was clear. The Maori Party has sold you out to the corporate warriors of the Iwi Leadership Group. While your whanau has been living in cars, theirs has been living high-on-the-hog at the Northern Club. While your rangatahi have struggled to find decent jobs, the children of the Maori Party’s principal benefactors (and beneficiaries!) have moved effortlessly from university to high-paying jobs in the private and public sectors. If you believe, as Labour does, that it’s time for decent, working-class Maori families to have a fair go, then you know who to vote for.
They sure did! And with those Labour votes went all hope of National securing a majority without NZ First. Little and McCarten had blown all the bridges that could possible carry the National Government to a fourth term with its preferred allies. Only Act survived Little’s and McCarten’s strategy – and Act, on its own, wasn’t enough.
Keeping those Maori votes in Labour’s column is now critical to Labour’s re-election prospects. Five days at Waitangi are, therefore, only the beginning of what’s likely to become a sort of royal progress around the marae of Aotearoa.
Ms Adern’s undoubted warmth and empathy will not, however, be enough to deliver the promised lift in Maori working-class conditions. That will require economic and social interventions as reflective of Labour’s traditions as the campaign which destroyed the Maori Party and reclaimed all seven Maori seats.
Ms Ardern’s challenge, now, is how to govern for both the Pakeha middle-class and the Maori working-class.
Serving two masters is never easy.
Chris Trotter blogs at bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz. This essay was originally published in The Press.