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A King’s endorsement fails

October 6, 2017

Political ambition, particularly in parliamentary politics, can be a cruel master in a cruel game where winning takes precedence over most other considerations.

Some candidates will use anyone and anything in their endeavours to win votes and that can lead to sad tales of betrayal and abuse.     

The Kingitanga is, by its very nature, a political organisation and always has been. From its inception in 1858 the role of the first Maori King Te Wherowhero Potatau was for forge a multi-tribal alliance with as many tribes as possible to present a united front against Government sponsored land grabs by European speculators and settlers. The purpose of function of the Kingitanga has however changed and evolved with time and those who have inherited the mantle of Te Wherowhero in the past 159 years. One tradition, developed sometime in the last century, was non-involvement in parliamentary politics. The Kingitanga has never in the past openly endorsed candidates with the clear expectation that Maori voters would follow. The Kingitanga has obviously supported and encouraged many Maori leaders to stand for Parliament but always stopped short of telling or even suggesting to Maori who they should vote for.

That changed in early March when King Tuheita, at the tenth anniversary of coronation, announced his official support for a Maori Party and Mana alliance. He was also, surprisingly, critical of the Labour Party in spite of one his close relatives, adviser and staunch supporter of the Kingitanga Nania Mahuta, holding a senior position in the party.

It is unclear if Tuheitia was acting on his own volition or had been persuaded to make the announcement by some of his advisers. If that is the case his advisers were seriously mis-guided. One of his senior associates, former New Zealand First MP and current Maori Party president, Tukuroirangi Morgan, announced that the King’s endorsement of Maori Party candidate Rahui Papa was “a game changer”. In a somewhat idealistic prediction he said all the marae within the Hauraki-Waikato electorate would follow the Tuheitia’s endorsement. They didn’t and no one should have expected that they would.

The election night result, which returned Mahuta with 12,070 votes compared to Rahui Papa, with 4619 votes, was a very clear signal that Maori voters will not be taken for granted. There was an equally clear message that Nania Mahuta should not be treated carelessly. She is a woman of considerable mana within her own Waikato people and held in high regard by politicians of all political colours even those who have knowingly or otherwise incurred her wrath.

She is strong minded and fearless when advocating for Maori and will vote against her own Labour Party if she feels Maori will be disadvantaged. On one memorable occasion she joined former Labour MP Tariana Turia, to vote against the first reading of her party’s legislation on the controversial foreshore and seabed issue. She did not, however, join Turia when she quit Labour to found the Maori Party. In the bills second reading, she again voted against her party, but in the third reading, she changed her position and supported it but with reservations. 

Mahuta was first elected to Parliament in the 1996 elections, when she became a list MP. In the 1999 elections, she won the Te Tai Hauauru electorate, and in the 2002 elections, she won Tainui. Before the 2008 general election the electorate boundaries were changed and it was renamed Hauraki-Waikato. She held the seat with a majority of 888. In 2014 Mahuta was a candidate in the Labour Party leadership election. She was unsuccessful, and Andrew Little became the leader.

With those credentials it is difficult to understand why Tuheitia would publicly endorse an inexperienced rival from the Maori Party which was already known to be out of favour with many Maori voters.

If he was acting on advice, was it a desperate move by the Maori Party to attempt to use the mana of the Kingitanga to shore up flagging support? If so it was ill-advised and a betrayal of a trusted position.

The Kingitanga has an important and even essential role in advocating the many causes of Maori. It also has an important role in working with Government leaders as equals regardless of which end of the political spectrum they come from.  While that role is difficult to define in Pakeha terminology, like British Royalty, it must be above the squabbling of party politics.

Tuheitia’s advisory council of twelve, Tekau ma Rua, may well have some advice of their own on the issue.