Could the Maori Party and National do a deal?

Most on the left struggle to see how the Maori and National parties could ever coalesce, or even how the Maori Party could help National into power. Surely the two parties are mortal enemies?

In this article political science lecturer and blogger Bryce Edwards argues that this view fails to understand the political nature of both parties. These two nationalist parties have much more in common than most realise:

Despite the illusions of many on the left, repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act would be a right-wing law change, which is why National and Act could be comfortable with it. (The fact that it would also involve the Maori Party and the Greens says much about their ideological confusion and centrism).

Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act was progressive in terms of nationalising the beaches so that they could continue to be used by all.

Those arguing for its repeal – including the Maori Party, Act, and the Greens – are essentially falling into line with a right-wing approach to property rights, in fact private-business property rights. In this sense it was always rather inconsistent – but highly pragmatic – of the National Party to support Labour’s F&S Act in the first place.

Could the Maori Party survive putting National into power?

The Maori Party MPs have already made much of their willingness to go with whatever major party offers them the best policy concessions for Maori.

As recently as Waitangi Day, Maori Party MPs were talking up their own relevance by proclaiming that they will hold the balance after this year’s election. Obviously a strategy that involves holding the balance of power logically requires that the party be genuinely willing to negotiate with both Labour and National.

Tariana Turia even agreed in 2005 to support a Don Brash-led National Government if they could amass enough votes in Parliament.

Of course, it’s more likely that the Maori Party will go onto the cross benches after the 2008 election. From here it could give National or Labour support to govern, in return for some major policy concessions on Maori issues. The repeal of the F&S Act would clearly be a major victory for the Maori Party, and most of the party’s supporters would regard this as a considerable policy win.

They would also accept that Labour would never give them such a deal. So the Maori Party might well have a relationship with the governing National Party without actively being a coalition partner – much like the relationship the Greens have with the current Labour Government.

Already the stage is being set for such a possibility. John Key has even said that if National-friendly Maori voters don’t want to vote for National in the Maori seats, he would like them to vote for the Maori Party. That’s quite an endorsement.

Maori Party left-wing?

The major point of all of this is that the Maori Party is not necessarily left-wing. Clearly, the Maori Party is actually a centrist party with leftish and rightish factions. Turia in fact supports doing a deal favouring National; Sharples is in favour of a deal with Labour; Te Ururoa Flavell’s position is unclear;and Hone Harawira is in favour of a more neutral cross-bench position. With new conservative MPs like Derek Fox being elected later this year, the balance could easily be tipped to the right.

It also has to be realised that the Maori Party has more antagonism towards Labour than it does towards National. While National is viewed by most political Maori as being traditionally distant from Maori concerns, the Labour Party’s many betrayals of Maori are taken more seriously. Like the Alliance before it, the Maori Party was born out of an immense sense of hurt and betrayal by Labour, and this gives the party much more reason to reach out to alternative power bases.

Essentially, the Maori Party could play a distinctly conservative role in politics. Far from being dangerous radicals, as some in the media and politics were initially inclined to describe Turia and colleagues, most of the Maori Party have proved extremely conservative and amenable to incorporation into the elite. Turia has been a guest speaker at an Act Party conference. She has even described the Maori Party views on welfare as being similar to Act’s. She has also said that “this so-called welfare state has not done us any favours”.

Turia justifies a possible coalition with National with the statement that if you look at the history of the National Party, their free-market, private-enterprise philosophy has actually allowed Maori people to participate and take back some control. Kohanga reo, kura kaupapa, wananga, Maori health providers and Maori social service providers were Maori initiatives, but all came out under National governments.


Although the Maori Party’s nationalism is specifically a Maori nationalism, it is a nationalism nonetheless – and it’s increasingly based on a cross-class basis, especially since there is now a clear Maori middle class and Maori capitalists (which didn’t really exist 50 years ago).

The Maori Party has consciously decided to be a party for all Maori, rather than for those who are poor or struggling. It has therefore decided not to be a left-wing party of the working class.

Co-leader Pita Shaples has clearly stated that “our philosophies cater to the rich, the poor, to everyone”. And he’s been positive about the business backing the party has received.

This ethnic-oriented cross-class politics means that the party is often drawn towards policies with a reactionary or conservative flavour.

Attempting to incorporate a broad range of class support means that the party leadership has a hard job coming up with policies that appeal across the board. One strategy is to adopt a nationalism that can appeal to Maori across the spectrum. Hence Turia has railed against immigration and foreign investment. She has recently said that there are too many whites coming to New Zealand and, absurdly, that successive governments have used immigration against Maori to stop the “browning of New Zealand”.

Other conservative parts of the Maori Party’s programme have included voting against the Civil Union Bill giving greater rights to same-sex couples; voting to raise the drinking age; expressing support for private prisons (to be run by Maori entrepreneurs who are culturally sensitive); and supporting the introduction of work-for-the-dole.

Sharples is even prone to whipping up anti-gang feeling. In 2006 he said he wanted to look at all gang insignia being banned, and he threatened to name and shame gangs and their members.

As Herald political commentator John Armstrong has argued, there’s actually many areas where the interests of the Maori and National parties intersect: “welfare reform, iwi-based delivery of social services, reviewing the treaty settlement process, and promoting Maori business enterprise”.

The Maori Party has even stated that it might be in favour of the partial privatisation of public assets – if it involves a shift of ownership to iwi corporations, according to Sharples.

Just how reactionary someone like Tariana Turia can be is exposed by her orientation to the foreign fishing crews that work for iwi-owned local fisheries. When a report showed that some of these workers are being paid as little as $195 a month in New Zealand, Turia was adamantly opposed to a plan to raise the hourly pay rates of foreign fishing crews to $12.75.

Race relations similarities

National under Key and English is much more liberal and centrist on Maori issues. The party is now continuing the changes begun by Bill English in the early 2000s of modernising and making the party seem less white.

As evidence that those changes are deeper than superficial, consider the rehabilitation of Hekia Parata, the 2002 National Party Wellington Central candidate. After Don Brash’s race relations speech at Orewa in 2004, though, Parata said she was “ashamed” to belong to the National Party, and that the policy was “the antithesis of everything I’ve worked for professionally and personally”. She was nowhere to be seen in the 2005 elections but is once again contributing to the National Party and is talked about as a possible strong candidate for 2008.

Although initially critical of Treaty politics, since 1990 National has actually adopted the liberal Treaty model of race relations in this country.

A political consensus developed in mainstream politics when National adopted Labour’s Treaty and biculturalism politics and spent nine years in government as enthusiastic advocates of Treaty settlements and race-based politics. In fact National probably wrote more Treaty of Waitangi references into law than Labour ever did.

None of this is an argument to say that the Maori Party will in fact do a deal with National, but merely that such a scenario is much more possible than many on the left

acknowledge. After the 2008 general election it will probably make most sense if the Maori Party sit rather independently on the cross benches. Such a position will very correctly convey exactly where the party stands on the political spectrum – right in the middle, with enough pragmatism to ensure that absolutely anything is possible.

Bryce Edwards writes a political blog at

One Reply to “Could the Maori Party and National do a deal?”

  1. It is true that Labour has failed to even try to understand Maori views. But it is equally true that National has no real feeling for the condition experienced by the great majority of Maori. Labour see Maori as poor as poor and not really relevant to winning elections and anyway they had no-where else to go before MMP. National leaders have always patronised well-educated Maori (they being the closest to successful in their Pakeha eyes). But a broad-based Maori Party is something new and not easily stereotyped. Indeed it might be said that by looking for Policies that will truly help Maori to progress with self-respect and justice, that Maori are just asking for the same as all NZers. By sitting on the cross-benches, a truly independent stance can be taken.Probably all 7 of the Maori Electorates will become longterm Maori Party strongholds. Maori voters have been disillusioned now by the rhetoric of Labour 1984 to 1990 with extremely damaging ACT-like Policies privatising basic services, National social spending cuts that saw many Maori families forced onto benefits and driven back to their whanau in rural areas to survive in dreadful housing. To be led down a blind alley by NZFirst was humiliating. And now second time round with an unthinking Labour Govt of Clark, Mallard and Cullen whose sole interest is in keeping the middle-class content and to hell with the merits of the Law or seabed ownership etc. The Maori Party MPs don’t seem to have any natural allies except the Greens who look to principle, consensus, and sustainability-policy approaches that are ideal for a brave new world that many Maori are seeking.

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