Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

The Labour Party and Tribal Maori Leadership


During World War Two Labour's Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, decided the time was right to settle Maori claims over the loss of land. Maori were playing a much more active role in the war effort than during World War One and the Prime Minister told everyone that they were to be guaranteed equal access to all opportunities when they returned from the Front. Several lump sums were paid to tribes on a "full and final" basis for their grievances. Being a Labour government, ministers expected that the money would be spent on furthering health, education and welfare for ordinary Maori. They were astonished to discover that Tainui spent much of its settlement on a flash new car for the Maori King and improvements to the living quarters of the Maori royal family. Socialists scratched their heads, feeling it wasn't their job to fund the Maori aristocracy.

History has a habit of repeating itself. Ever since the Waitangi Tribunal was given the power in 1985 to inquire into historical claims - ignoring the "full and final" settlements of the 1940s, but that's another story - it became clear that tribes and their aristocratic leadership intended to play a commanding role in any further settlements. Onlookers began to worry about what the tribes would do with further settlement money, and in the 1990s urged that there be some control over the process. But that weak Minister of Treaty Negotiations, National's Douglas Graham, responded that Maori had a right to handle the reparations as they thought fit. Tribalism has gradually been beefed up since then. Ngai Tahu in the South Island with quality leadership decided to invest in education, jobs and opportunities for their people, but few of the other tribes were as ambitious. Initially, Tainui wasted a lot of their resource and have never reached Ngai Tahu's progressive benchmark. Others have frittered at least part of theirs away. Little has been spent on further education or job training for young Maori, things which tribal leaders have always been happy to leave to central government. Despite knowing that easy access to welfare corroded personal responsibility, just as Sir Apirana Ngata always warned that it would, no Maori leaders have come forward since him to lead their people in the direction of self-improvement. The result has been that after governments have spent billions of dollars on settlements and on welfare, Maori are in a worse relative state to the rest of New Zealand society than before the Waitangi Tribunal was established.

The failure to set standards for the spending of settlement money and to be firm with rules for benefits like unemployment, Job Seeker benefits and Domestic Purposes benefits has led to the parlous state of so much of current day Maori society. Yes, there are many success stories, which we celebrate, but there are far too many needlessly tragic outcomes as well. That hasn't altered Maori thinking. John Tamihere, whose Waipareira Trust did good work for de-tribalized Maori in West Auckland, seems to have teamed up with the silk underpants-wearing Tuku Morgan of the King Movement in search of easier money. "We own the water" they suddenly blurted the other day, hoping to levy rental income from the rivers that flow through dams and provide electricity to everyone. Like hereditary rulers everywhere, they see Maori becoming rentiers, supplementing benefit money with rents levied on the rest of us. Have you heard any response to this proposal from Prime Minister Chris Hipkins? I haven't.

Instead, the Labour Government that once thought of itself as the workers' friend now has co-governance with Maori at the centre of its ideology. Leaving aside whether it is a good idea to divide our governing structure along racial lines (which it isn't), there is no mention of any requirement for Maori representation on any co-governing body to be elected by all Maori, and not just be appointees of tribal aristocrats. We are told by that bovver boy, the Minister of Local Government, Kieran McAnulty, that the Labour government no longer believes in one-person-one-vote, a fundamental of democracy for the last hundred years. Times have moved on, he says, implying that his left-wing government favours tribalism and a world where one race is superior to others and will govern us in future. Not content with fostering tribalism, he seems to suggest that by stretching the Maori proportion from 17% of the population to at least 51% of those wielding power we can settle back and enjoy Maori rule of our lands, our beaches, our rivers, and presumably anything else that takes the fancy of the likes of Tamihere and the silk underpants.

Is this what 107 years of the Labour Party's history has come to? No longer a workers' party pledged to furthering the interests of all working people, but the plaything of corrupt, self-appointed tribal aristocrats from a racial minority intent on an easy life at the expense of their fellow New Zealanders? I've always stood for a fair shake for Maori. Not some jiggery pokery where a century of progress towards fair shares for all, irrespective of race, is pushed aside for no good reason. With the election coming up in October, it's high time, that Chris Hipkins made it clear that one-person-one-vote will always apply under his rule, and that no matter whether he needs the support of the Maori Party after the election, there will be no compromising that fundamental principle. And while he's about it, he should assure us that Labour also believes that Maori don't own the water: it belongs to everyone.