Heather du Plessis-Allan: Ihumātao decision only the beginning


Generally, the closer to Christmas a government announces something, the more unpopular that thing probably is. It’s the old trick of slipping out bad news while voters are too distracted by present-shopping and too worn out to care.

That was the case with this week’s Ihumātao announcement. Left until a week before Christmas Eve, held until three hours after the Prime Minister had finished her last media conference with journalists for the year.

There is a list of reasons why this announcement may be unpopular with voters. First, the use of $30 million of taxpayer money to reward the land occupiers. This, in the same week Treasury warned the Finance Minister that money is now so tight that “strong management of revenue and expenses is required”.

Then, the concern that it undermines private property rights given Fletcher was essentially forced to its sell land for well below market value. The land was valued at $36 million three years ago, and even ignoring the massive increase in property prices since 2017, the company took a haircut.

And finally, the warning that it sets a precedent for future occupation of private property. It’s not theoretical. It’s already happening at Shelly Bay in Wellington.

Over the next three years the Government will probably end up wishing they had more than one Christmas a year in which to bury unpopular decisions concerning te ao Māori, because race relations looks like a debate set to continue this Parliamentary term. Ihumātao is probably not the last contentious te ao Māori decision this Government will have to confront.

The Government will almost certainly come under pressure from the Māori Party, back in Parliament after a three-year hiatus. Unlike the ultra-compromising Māori Party of John Key’s era, this iteration is looking for more change, faster.

They’ve publicly said their aim is to “pressure” the Labour Party. And, they’re happy to take quite edgy positions. For example, co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer’s maiden speech in which she declared “I stand here as a descendant of a people who survived a holocaust”.

This is the party that made headlines last year by leading the Hands Off Our Tamariki protest against Oranga Tamariki’s uplift of pēpi Māori (Māori babies) and Ngarewa-Packer running iwi-led checkpoints during the first lockdown.

Expect the ongoing discussion around Oranga Tamariki to be fodder for the party.

The more attention the Māori Party gets, the more it puts pressure on the Labour Party’s Māori MPs if they feel their seats are under threat. That concern has been validated by Labour’s Tamati Coffey losing the Waiariki seat to the Māori Party.

Those Labour MPs will be under pressure to match the promises and noise from their Māori Party rivals, and thus exert pressure on Jacinda Ardern for public wins. That threatens to be a tough balancing act for the PM who has clearly abandoned most of her “transformational” plans in favour of chasing and retaining centre voters.

How she mollifies the Labour Māori caucus will be the trick. Because already, Labour’s 15-strong Māori caucus is bigger than it’s ever been.

They have shown their ability to flex their muscles and make demands, including forcing Kelvin Davis into Labour’s No 2 position, and possibly also leveraging Nanaia Mahuta into the foreign affairs portfolio despite her lack of qualification for the role.

Exerting power isn’t a bad thing. Any grouping within a caucus is entitled to (and should) use that size to further its own goals, whether it be a group of rural MPs, urban MPs, liberals, conservatives, or, in this case, Māori MPs.

What’s tricky is when the goals of that grouping don’t align with the goals of the wider party. And that seems the case with Labour. The Ihumātao decision is one the Māori caucus will see as a win, but one Jacinda Ardern doesn’t even want to answer questions about.

Expect more of this. There are probably more controversial te ao Māori decisions than Christmases left between now and 2023’s election.

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