Caught in the mainstream

9:42 am on 2 May 2018

Analysis - Top marks for symbolism. Te mutunga kē mai o te pai - couldn't be better.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) arrives to attend The Queen's Dinner during The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), at Buckingham Palace in London on April 19, 2018.

Photo: AFP PHOTO / POOL / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spent five days at Waitangi and was photographed tending the BBQ after the dawn service. Social media swooned when she wore a kahu huruhuru to meet the Monarch - a mihi to Māori worn, not on her sleeve but on her shoulders.

But what of the policies to deliver for Māori, who gifted Labour the seven Māori electorates? He aha te rautaki? What is the strategy?

Labour's first 100 day-plan had 17 promises. Not not one of them was an initiative aimed specifically at Māori. The word doesn't even feature in the plan.

Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta has nine press releases directly related to her portfolio on the Beehive website. Stripping away the awards and pleasantries, just three seem to carry any prospect of government money. A Papakāinga housing development and more funding for digital projects - both started under National - and a business hub for Māori economic development in Waikato.

And yes there are many other ways to measure ministerial clout than press releases - and no I have not been with her on her many marae visits. So fair cop there.

But underlying all this is a deeper question. Devolution or mainstreaming? That is fundamental because right now Māori are choosing between the Māori and the general roll. That determines the number of Māori seats but it's also a referendum on how best to get gains for Māori.

Voters banished the Māori Party and entrusted Māori MPs in a mainstream party to deliver. Of course you don't turn around decades of deprivation in six months. But you do get the direction of travel.

That direction seems to be mainstreaming. Unlike the last Labour government there is no explicit policy to reduce inequality between Māori and other New Zealanders.

Helen Clark's government called it 'Closing the Gaps'. The Prime Minister herself chaired a special Cabinet committee and hundreds of millions was spent.

This time Labour argues its policies targeting low income earners, such as raising the minimum wage, will help Māori because many Māori don't earn much.

No caption

Ms Ardern works the grill at Waitangi. Photo: RNZ

Tied up with this is the idea of universalism - a flash way of saying: give it to everyone. So every couple over 65, regardless of wealth, gets a $700 winter heating payment. Every family with a new-born baby get $60 a week for the first year. All tertiary students get the free fees (conditions apply on all these policies so check the Ts & Cs).

The government is making a lot of its fiscal constraints right now and fair enough. But when money is tight do you spend it on people who can easily provide for themselves or focus on the needy?

In many areas it is Māori communities in the greatest need. Has mainstreaming worked for Māori? Dissatisfaction with an education system ambivalent to Māori language and culture was one reason for the high Māori interest in charter schools. This government is closing them. Now, you might love or hate charter schools - hoea tō waka on that one. But what's the strategy to lift Māori education rates?

It's also worth asking why mainstreaming only seems to run one way. When you talk about putting a fundamental pou of Te Ao Māori into the mainstream, what happens? Look at te reo Māori. If we "mainstreamed" te reo it would be in every school alongside all the other subjects. Not even Labour, with all the Māori seats, seems brave enough to do that.

From a political perspective you can understand the reticence of a mainstream party. Ms Clark's 'Closing the Gaps' strategy led to a Brash-lash that saw the National leader fall just short of the 9th Floor in 2005.

Labour's partner New Zealand First is deeply sensitive to getting outside the mainstream. Winston Peters has long railed against "separatist" laws and last election wanted a referendum on abolishing the Māori seats. Mr Brash endorsed New Zealand First in 2017 as the best chance of getting rid of "National's race-based policies".

Pushing along those policies was National's coalition partner the Māori Party. In their last three years the budget for Māori Development increased from $230 million to $310 million.

Will Labour's Māori MPs prise that kind of money out of the Budget this month? We'll watch with interest. Whāia te pūtea. Follow the money.

*Guyon Espiner is co-host of Morning Report on RNZ. He covered politics from the Press Gallery between 1998 and 2011 and produced the 9th Floor book and podcast series with RNZ's Tim Watkin.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs