Hone's not the only one who needs to change
Brash's claims that Maori seats in parliament, state funding for Maori language schools, and the work of the Waitangi Tribunal were giving Maori an 'upper hand' in New Zealand society gave the National Party he led a huge boost in the opinion polls, and made race the focal point of New Zealand political discourse for the next year or so. Worried that its Pakeha working class base might be attracted to Brash's right-wing populism, the Labour government was soon hurrying legislation through parliament in a bid to forestall Maori attempts to claim customary rights to the coastline in the courts.
By picking on Maori who wanted to claim some rights over the coast they had lived beside for hundreds of years, and leaving the actual ownership of pieces of coastline by dozens of Pakeha individuals intact, the Foreshore and Seabed Act announced itself as the most openly racist legislation seen in this country since the Suppression of Tohunga Act. It was no surprise that the Act prompted a huge hikoi and a mass Maori defection from Labour to the newly-established Maori Party. The Maori Party represented the largest split from Labour since the formation of the New Labour Party in 1989. Like New Labour, which was formed by opponents of the neo-liberal policies of the 'Rogernomics' era, the Maori Party was a response to betrayal. Since Wiremu Ratana had wedded his religious and nationalist movement to Labour in the 1930s, the party had been able to count on Maori as some of its most loyal supporters. Helen Clark's government had thought nothing, though, of sacrificing these loyalists on the altar of right-wing populism.
Many trade unions and left-wing groups had taken part in the hikoi that protested the foreshore and seabed legislation, and leftists and unionists were in evidence at the big hui organised to set up the Maori Party shortly after the hikoi. The overwhelming majority of the new party's members were working class, and Maori trade unionists like Justin Taua and Syd Kepa argued that it should adopt a programme which was left-wing and pro-worker. In a leaflet which he distributed at one of the founding hui, Taua argued that the party could only be pro-Maori if it were also pro-worker, because the fortunes of Maori rose and fell with the fortunes of the working class. The Maori Party should therefore position itself far to the left of Labour, try to win formal support from the trade unions, and focus on activism on the street and in the workplace as well as on elections.
Even at an early stage, it was clear that socialists like Justin Taua were swimming against the stream inside the Maori Party. Tuku Morgan, a former member of a National-led government and an outspoken supporter of 'Maori capitalism', played a key role in the early hui which established the party's structure and constitution. The new party's MP and leader Tariana Turia had been treated so appallingly by Helen Clark and other senior Labour politicians that she had decided already that, Don Brash aside, National's leaders could be no worse. Many of the rank and file members of the new party had grown up in the 1990s, when the trade union movement had been a shadow of its former self, and media pundits had proclaimed the end of left-wing politics: consequently, the rhetoric of people like Taua and Kepa sounded alien and irrelevant to them.
At Orewa Don Brash, the wealthy leader of the traditional party of the Kiwi bourgeoisie, had claimed that the poorest section of the New Zealand community was somehow getting the 'upper hand' simply because it had won, after more than a century of protesting, a few modest victories like state funding for its language. Brash's arguments never stood up to scrutiny, and the boost he gave National in the polls was eventually reversed. Even if they approved of his Maori-bashing, working class Pakeha could see that he and his party advocated a return to the neo-liberal policies of privatisation, union-busting, and cuts in social services that had made the governments of Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley deeply unpopular in the nineties. It was National, and not Maori activism, which was the biggest threat.
National was able to win power last year only after swapping the severe Brash for the affable John Key, who was at pains to tell Kiwis that the more extreme policies of the neo-liberal era would not be revisited under his rule. Key's political skills have helped his government retain its popularity through its first year, but it is becoming increasingly clear that his party has not abandoned its old agenda.
Key's Cabinet is full of retreads from the Bolger-Shipley era, and his Act Party coalition partner openly agitates for full-blooded neo-liberalism. Key's government has responded to the global recession by cutting state services and laying off state workers, rather than borrowing and spending to stimulate the economy as the Rudd government has done so successfully in Australia. The result will be a further downturn in consumer spending, and more layoffs in the private as well as the public sector. The anger which teachers and ACC clients have shown towards National in recent weeks is likely to spread, as the neo-liberal agenda Key has hidden with some skill becomes obvious.
On the surface, it might seem like the spectre of racial conflict which Don Brash's Orewa speech and Labour's seabed and foreshore legislation raised in 2004 has disappeared in 2009. John Key has, after all, repudiated Brash's statements, taken pains to induce the Maori Party into his governing coalition, and treated party leaders Turia and Pita Sharples with more respect than Helen Clark could muster for some of the Maori members of her Cabinet.
The Maori Party's supporters seem reasonably happy, so far, with their leaders' decision to forge a deal with National and Act. The party has been handed a few policy victories by Key, like the promised repeal of the hated seabed and foreshore legislation and some extra funding for Maori language schools. But these victories have come at a price of Maori Party support for National's wider programme. Hone Harawira did not even try to hide the disgust he felt at having to vote for the Key government's first budget, which gave the rich tax breaks while cutting funding for a number of important government services. The Maori Party has since offered its qualified support for National plans to open the Accident Compensation Corporation to market forces and to cut the amounts it pays out to accident victims. Acquiescence in further neo-liberal policies will surely follow.
The Maori Party has fallen into exactly the trap that Justin Taua and other left-wingers warned about in 2004. The party's leaders are trying to enact a pro-Maori agenda by allying themselves with an anti-worker government. Turia and Sharples seem to have forgotten that, because the vast majority of Maori belong to the working class, and most of them belong to the poorest parts of the class, Maori are inevitably going to be badly affected by National's policies.
The Key government's first budget savagely cut funding for community education programmes which have served thousands of Maori as well as Pakeha Kiwis. The hundreds of Maori who find their adult literacy in English classes cancelled are unlikely to be consoled by the news that Key has thrown some more money at Maori-language schools. National's budget also cut funding for industry training, a move which will disproportionately affect Maori teenagers, who already face an unemployment rate of 25%.
If the Maori Party continues to support National's neo-liberal programme then it faces eventually losing its voter base amongst working class Maori. Even worse, perhaps, it risks giving large numbers of working class Pakeha the impression that Maori really are getting the 'upper hand' in New Zealand, as Don Brash claimed back in 2004. If the cause of Maori nationalism is associated with a right-wing government that makes ordinary Kiwis worse off, then Kiwi race relations could be set back decades, as sentiments turn against that government and any group associated with it.
Although the left and the trade unions have made big steps in coming to terms with Maori issues in recent decades - most unions now have their own runanga, for instance, something that was unimaginable as recently as the seventies - they still harbour people who think that causes like the preservation of the Maori language and the recovery and resettling of stolen lands are an unnecessary distraction from 'meat and veges' workers' issues. (Chris Trotter is one well-known advocate for this economistic and rather Eurocentric brand of leftism, which is sometimes incorrectly associated with the name of Marx, and which forgets that, in our part of the world, it is non-European peoples who have actually succeeded in practising socialism.) By adorning a government which is enacting an anti-worker agenda with the rhetoric of Maori nationalism, the Maori Party is giving ammunition to those who would like to take the left and the unions back to the era before the Maori renaissance began.
The Maori Party has been embarrassed in recent days by Hone Harawira's taxpayer-funded jaunt to Paris, and by the arrogant, expletive-laden e mail he wrote in defence of his rort. But Harawira's blunders are trivial in comparison to the stupidity of his party's decision to try to enact a pro-Maori agenda from the inside of an anti-worker government. A few hundred dollars of public money and some off-colour language won't kill the Maori Party; complicity in National's neo-liberal policies eventually will. Hone's not the only one who needs to rethink his ways.