Wellington, December 7,2023
The somewhat subversive twist given by Te Pati Maori MPs to the proceedings heralding the opening of the 54th Parliament marked a tumultuous start to a new three-year term.
As Members of Parliament elected in the general election on 14 October 2023 took an oath or affirmation of allegiance to the Crown, administered by the Clerk of the House of Representatives on December 5, Te Pati Maori members swore to King Harehare, Mokopuna, the Treaty of Waitangi and tikanga Maori, to the accompaniment of waiata, haka or karanga.
The politics behind the spectacle became apparent in the subsequent leaders’ debate in the House on December 6, following the Speech from the Throne delivered by Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro outlining the policies of the new government.
Deputy Prime Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters traded barbs with Te Pati Maori Co-leader Rawiri Waititi, laying claim to a legacy of contribution to Maoridom.
What became clear was that the political ground was visibly shifting from under Labour, that the thrust of the opposition to the National-led government would come from Te Pati Maori and the Greens, one through street protests and the other via policy assertion.
Te reo Maori
Leader of the Opposition Chris Hipkins was acting on cue by accusing the government of “egregious and divisive policies” around Maori.
“New Zealanders have nothing to fear from Maori thriving in New Zealand,” he said, adding, “When Maori thrive, all New Zealanders will thrive.”
But in his effort to shore up Maori sentiment, Hipkins appeared to be ceding the political advantage to Te Pati Maori. His pitch to protect te reo Maori, while aimed at projecting Labour as the flame-keeper of Maori culture and tradition, emerged as an endorsement of Te Pati Maori, in effect.
Fluency and learning
On National’s plan to cut bonuses to public servants fluent in te reo Maori, Prime Minister Luxon drew a distinction between fluency and learning. “People are completely free to learn te reo themselves, that’s what happens out there in the real world – in corporate life or any other community life – across New Zealand,” he noted, adding, “The bonuses are designed to acknowledge fluency, not learning, and I imagine there are plenty of speakers within government departments who might talk to being the chief, sometimes sole, karakia-powhiri-translation-cultural-advice officer.”
Clearly, race relations is the genie let out of the bottle by the new coalition government. It promises to be the single overriding factor, after cost of living, that threatens to disrupt smooth functioning in the short (100-day) term as well as beyond that.
Te Pati Maori is the grouping best positioned to sow the whirlwind by sustaining the temperature of a divisive issue on the streets.
Law and order
It was, naturally, expedient for the new government to sharpen its focus on law and order.
Police Minister Mark Mitchell lost no time in briefing the police commissioner, as per media reports, on National’s key policies to tackle crime, including legislation to ban gang patches and public gatherings by gang members, and stricter firearms controls.
But while the leaders’ debate in the new Parliament saw Prime Minister Luxon parrying Opposition Leader Hipkins, and Deputy Prime Minister Peters denouncing Te Pati Maori and the media, it was left to ACT leader David Seymour to focus the debate on the new government’s bedrock policies.
But Seymour might be overstating the case if he expects to see a lasting “peaceful transition of power, a contest of ideas, a battle of words rather than of weapons.”
That near-mythical scenario is fraught with obstacles created by some of Seymour’s pet policies.
Seymour has pledged to increase prison capacity to sequester those who “attack someone in a sole-charge workplace or a workplace attached to their dwelling house.”
But it is his call for debating the principles around the Treaty of Waitangi that is proving to be a clarion for dissent.
“Those people who aren’t so intellectual, they tend to be afraid of debate, and so they will call you racist and they will shoot you down and they’ll try and block the motorway,” Seymour told the House.
Debating the Treaty principles was “mana-enhancing for Te Tiriti and Maoridom.”
But Te Pati Maori Co-leader Waititi believed “the true mana of this nation does not live in this place [Parliament]. It resides on marae and papa kainga right across this country.”
Waititi noted “it [mana] resides in the hearts and the minds of te Iwi Maori.”
Maoridom’s message to modern-day New Zealand is loud and clear: “We are rangatira who never ceded our sovereignty, never bowed down to foreign power.”
The new government’s prison policy came in for sharp reaction.
“Removing the prison reduction target and cultural reports in the justice system proves that the government is intent on locking up more brown people and throwing away the key,” Waititi told the House.
Maori sensitivities around debating the Treaty principles is best summed up by the clenched fist comment delivered by the Te Pati Maori co-leader.
“Leaving the door open to a referendum on Te Tiriti – the constitutional right for this Parliament to even exist – highlights just how extreme and dangerous this government’s policies are.
“This government has opened the floodgates of hatred towards Maori.”
If this perception translates to boots on the streets, Prime Minister Luxon’s three-party coalition government could be staring down the barrel of recent history, to the Jacinda Ardern era when State force was unleashed to quell civil unrest that erupted on the grounds of Parliament.
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington