Maori Politics
by Ross N Himona


(An article written for “The Republican”, 1993)


In one of my madder moods I went to a National Party hui at a Wellington marae to hear Winston Peters speak to the party faithful. He was very late due to his being delayed at a radio station; his favourite marae.


One of the most interesting things I learned was that at that time the Maori Committee of the Wellington Division of the National Party consisted mainly of Pakeha delegates. Another was that Party officials could not understand why a retired commissioned Army officer did not support the National Party. It seems that most other retired Maori officers do. Nor could they understand how I could be so politically active without actually belonging to or supporting any political party.


In exasperation one of them finally asked me to explain my politics, and I answered quite simply and clearly that Ngati Kahungunu was my politics. As I belonged to an iwi I had no need of a political party.


At that stage the eyes glazed over.


That reaction sums up the attitude of the average politician for whom the only politics are that variety practised in the Parliament, and by the political parties which between them depend on Parliament to exercise power and control over the rest of us. Despite our four token Maori seats in Parliament that particular variety of politics has haphazardly grown to totally exclude Maori politics.


Maori politics are not an appendage of the Parliamentary system, or a brown imitation of it. Maori politics are practised with great gusto, much noise, good humour, and sometimes too with considerable acrimony, just like the other variety, up and down the country every day, on almost every marae. Maori politics are also practised by the wise and respected, exerting quiet influence over the more visible noise makers, just like the other variety.


Maori politics are practised by the not-so-wise, by the manipulators, numbers men and power brokers, behind doors and in dark corners; just like the other variety. Maori politics are very effectively practised by our womenfolk quietly getting on with the real business while the men prance and bluster; just like the other variety.


Yet we in the tribal homelands have no need of political parties. For the iwi or tribe is essentially a political structure.


Generally speaking, in Te Ao Maori (The Maori World) the whanau or extended family is a social unit and a small economic unit. The hapu or tribe is, or was, the main economic unit which controlled the major economic resources such as land and fisheries, and owned large capital assets such as whare whakairo (carved houses) or waka taua (war canoes). The hapu is also a political unit. In quite small iwi or tribes, these would be the functions of the iwi.


The larger iwi, some very large indeed, on the rare occasions when they function as cohesive units, were and are little more than political units. Though they are still based on kinship they can be quite diverse, and can have many different lines of descent not all shared by all members. They can cover large regions, and in the past many of them came together only when necessary; for instance, to ward off invaders from outside the tribal lands. In these modern times there has developed an idealistic and somewhat romantic notion of what an iwi was and is.


This version of an iwi has been devised mostly by Maori public servants living in the diaspora, mostly in Wellington, and who yearn for a return to an ideal world which has never existed; not in any culture. The result of this construction of an ideal world was the Runanga Iwi Act introduced by Labour in 1990 and repealed almost immediately by National.


To give them their due, they have also constructed this version of an iwi in order to reduce the number of Maori organisations they and their political masters have to deal with. Throughout the Sealord fiasco Doug Kidd and Doug Graham have made it quite clear that they don't want to have to deal with a myriad of hapu.


They are instead dealing with the bureaucratically reconstructed version of "iwi". Yet the economic resources are the property of hapu, not iwi, and certainly not the property of the reconstructed iwi.


The Parliamentary politicians and bureaucrats are of course aided and abetted by the beneficiaries of this reconstruction programme, who are those Maori businessmen politicians who directly control the new "iwi" in their various forms. What we are seeing from them is the creation of the "iwi" as a business centre and economic unit, as well as a political power base. They are far removed from the people in the hapu and whanau who used to comprise the iwi.


What they are doing is building a Maori political and business structure which bears no real relationship to the traditional structures. It is designed to assimilate itself into the power structure for the benefit of its political and business practitioners. It is not an iwi although it often bears the name of an iwi. In at least two cases that I am aware of the Government perceived versions of the iwi don't even bother to pretend that they are the real iwi.


This is a far more sophisticated attempt to gain political and conomic power than the Mana Motuhake Party which is little more than a brown copy of the other political parties. It is not based on Maori political structures, and certainly Matiu Rata has been vocally opposed to the use of traditional structures, or their imitations, as vehicles for political power. The Mana Motuhake Party is of course now part of the Alliance.


Behind all these machinations is the attempt, one way or another, to integrate Maori people into the Parliament centred political system, so that they may benefit from the system equally with non-Maori.


From my point of view the real political challenge facing Aotearoa/New Zealand is how to make the real Maori political process part of the political mainstream. We shouldn't have to form imitation parties like Mana Motuhake, and it is an affront to many Maori that there is now a proliferation of imitation iwi recognised by Governments.


This challenge to properly represent Maori by coming alongside the Maori political process is one in which National and Labour are not even remotely interested. By going with Mana Motuhake the Alliance has passed it up.