Tuesday, November 20, 2012

W(h)ither the Maori Party?

Wither the Maori party.

Sorry, that's probably a little harsh.

Whither the Maori party?

At their party conference held last month, the Maori party explored ways to rejuvenate and diversify the party’s image, support base and electoral prospects. These ranged from the fairly predictable, in the form of a remit to begin a leadership transition process for MP Te Ururoa Flavell and a renewed emphasis on running a party vote campaign; through to more surprising suggestions including a desire to substantially increase the party’s support among non-Maori.

These two goals – diversifying (some might say diluting) the party’s constituency and improving its flagging electoral prospects - are closely interlinked, and have come about as a strategic response to changes in the political terrain and the party.

The Maori party's electoral model has previously been conditioned by two elements: its mechanism for returning MPs to the House through the strong likelihood of its holding several of the Maori Seats, and the party's self-perceived function within the House as representation for Maori. This has contributed toward its initial incarnation as a fiercely partisan protest party and its more recent desire to be a (Treaty) partner in government.

It was fortunate enough to be able to fight its first two General Elections in favourable political terrain. In 2005, the recent salience of the Foreshore and Seabed issue provided a potent mobilizing force for the Maori party's target constituency. This played a strong role in establishing some of the initial populist and identity-politic appeal of the party as an independent/organic voice for Maori in a potentially unrepresentative democratic and policy process.

More importantly, as a unified opposition to Labour in the Maori seats (and representing the most successful challenger to Labour for the Maori seats since New Zealand First) the Maori party was able to capitalize upon being the only other real option for voters in these seats. It also may have gained substantially from a probable tactical elector intent of vote-splitting by giving their party vote to Labour and their electorate vote to the local Maori candidate in the belief that if the Maori party candidate were successful, the Labour candidate would also ideally make it back into Parliament on the party list. (between 2005 and 2008 this happened by my estimation five times)

The Maori party successfully parlayed these favourable conditions into 2.12% and 4 electorate seats in 2005, and a more robust 2.39% and 5 seats in 2008. These majority shares of the 7 Maori seats (with only 2 non-Maori party MPs in the seats after the 2008 election) certainly did not harm the party's effective reputation as the only game in town for being both a successful 'organic' indigenous political movement, and challenging Labour's dominance on Maori issues and perceived monopolization of Maori representation.

In 2011 however, it was different. The battle for the Maori Seats had become a three-way competition with the credible entry of the MANA party onto the scene in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election in June of that year. Further, the Labour party's effort in the seats was bolstered by having been in Opposition for the previous three years. No longer being in government meant Labour could spend less time defending its historic controversies and more time attacking the Maori party's role in government. This reversed the tables on the previous two elections, which had seen an 'outsider', independent and aggressively partisan Maori party seeking to call Labour's government to account. The Maori party's entry into governance back in 2008, by contrast, had eroded their credibility as either a protest party or an independent voice. This situation was only exacerbated by the emergence of an electoral alternative in the form of the MANA party more strongly focused on the protest element of Maori representation and which had staked out its partisan principles by defecting from both government and the Maori party.

In electoral terms then, it should hardly be surprising that the party's result declined proportionately. They had previously lost an MP and a safe seat when Hone Harawira defected prior to the Te Tai Tokerau by-election meaning they went into the 2011 general election with a Caucus of 4. On election night, they lost both Te Tai Tonga (to Labour's Rino Tirikatene) and 0.96% of their vote. Interestingly, MANA polled 1.08% of the popular vote; and, in Te Tai Tonga, just under the margin by which incumbent Maori MP Rahui Katene lost by. This leads to the obvious if somewhat unverifiable conclusion that the MANA party were directly responsible for the loss of two seats and perhaps up to a percent of popular vote for the Maori party.

It also handily demonstrates the point that competing within the Maori Seats can be something of a zero sum game. There are only 7 seats to be won, and although the Maori Party had managed to credibly organize and deliver results while these contests were substantively two party races, the addition of a third competitor has increased the investment necessary for any party to generate a return from putting effort into increasing their share of these seats.

Additionally, the strong correlation between the percentage of party votes lost by the Maori party with that gained by the MANA party may indicate that campaigning for the party vote associated with Maori representation is a situation of similar limitations and diminishing marginal returns. Although the extent of the nominal Maori electorate in terms of the return it can deliver through party vote is far more nebulous than the fixed seven seats available from the Maori electoral roll, the strong overlap between the MANA and Maori parties in rhetoric, identity politik focus and previous preferred constituencies means that they are inevitably going to be competing for many of the same party votes.

The defection of Hone Harawira before the 2011 election from the 'insider' Maori party to form his own 'outsider' protest movement represented in part a growing dissatisfaction within the Maori party's existing voter base at the conciliatory approach the party had taken toward National and the perceived erosion of the party's values which had thus ensued. The impact of MANA upon the Maori party's 2014 vote prospects then needs to be understood not just in terms of encouraging a large chunk of the party's supporters, candidates and activists and nearly half their party vote to up and leave with Harawira; but rather by the way the existence of a new, independent and fiercely partisan protest movement with an emphasis on Maori representation and Maori nationalism/identity politics directly competes for and may have delegitimated much of the Maori party's perceived strength in these areas. In effect, Harawira's defection conditioned and solidified emerging negative narratives about the Maori party (a succinct, if extreme summation of which would be Harawira's own recent "house niggers" comment, perhaps more politely phrased as "sellouts and hood-ornaments"), while also creating an alternative dedicated to those functions of protest, independence and social justice that may have been perceived to be neglected by the Maori party. This has had the strategic effect of increasing the effort and difficulty of appealing to these voters and parts of the electorate, while also forcing the Maori party to redefine its image and narrative in response.

Facing 2014 then, the Maori party has found itself faced with some stark strategic choices to make regarding its electoral future.

At its conference, it decided to
defer the motion to initiate a leadership transition for Te Ururoa Flavell. This keeps its two experienced co-Leaders occupying both their positions and their winnable electorate seats for the foreseeable future, and capitalizes upon strong pre-existing electoral and representational records for both these MPs and seats. It also keeps the leadership option open for future use if a successful challenge of Sharples by Shane Jones in Tamaki Makaurau looks likely (as was nearly the case in 2011, with Jones only behind by 936 votes); or alternatively if Flavell needs a profile boost in the event of a close race for Waiariki (which, despite his appreciable margin of 1,883 votes over MANA President Annette Sykes in 2011, is possible).

Interestingly, the Maori party also expressed a
desire to appeal to more non-Maori voters and supporters or even stand non-Maori candidates; which, while perhaps somewhat at odds with the party's earlier emphasis upon being a party of Maori speaking for Maori, is nevertheless a logical reaction to the increased difficulty the party is clearly faced with in pursuing its existing strategy of focusing more exclusively on attracting Maori supporters or the Maori vote. In essence, the Maori party has seen the comfortable political nieche it had previously occupied become altogether less hospitable with the addition of a direct competitor who has seized and demarcated out a swathe of it for his own. This has led to a corresponding increase in the effort which the Maori party must invest in competing with its close rivals for votes and supporters in its traditional constituencies, which has no doubt encouraged the Maori party to consider how it can appeal to electors outside these hotly contested battlegrounds as a source of members and electoral support.

One obvious way it could do this is by seeking to capitalize upon the well-developed perception that National will struggle to find "stable" coalition partners with whom they are both reasonably ideologically compatible and whose likely future Caucus composition will need more than a phonebox (or coffin) sized space to meet in.

The Maori party's strong record in governance of policy delivery and good faith partnership and negotiation - and, indeed, their strong emphasis upon being a "partner" in government - allows them to market themselves as an effective centrist party and a coalition partner for National with long-term viability. While it may be some time before we see tactical voting for the Maori party by National supporters, this role as both a prominent centrist voice and a dependable coalition partner may yet provide additional electoral appeal as they seek an increased party vote. The ideological (or at least rhetorical) heritage of the party's Caucus may also potentially allow it to work with Labour in a post-election situation, giving a party vote for the Maori party an added dimension of utility for non-Maori voters seeking an alternative centrist electoral option.

The ability and willingness of the party to brand itself as a centrist electoral option was shown by Turia's recent choice to characterize the focus of the party as being upon "housing, employment, education and whanau ora". This list of three broad-appeal goals and one prominent legacy item may serve to convey a centrist appeal with a Maori flavour rather than a Maori appeal with a centrist flavour. This de-emphasis of Maori isssues allows an avoidance of conflict with MANA in areas of shared appeal, while the focus on both the legacy item and gains in deliverable policy areas allow the Maori party to compete with rival parties from the Opposition in ways that emphasise their point of difference as a governmental 'insider' party.

The shift from goals more obviously identifiable as Maori in appeal (for example, securing recognition for the Tino Rangatiratanga flag) to those which, while they might have more importance for Maori are nevertheless of general appeal (such as improvements in "housing, employment [and] education") also plays strongly into its drive to diversify its support base and electoral prospects by recasting its role as delivering outcomes applicable to if not all New Zealanders, then at least more of them. And, if the Maori party is serious about pursuing a broader appeal and attracting voters and activists from outside of its traditional constituency, promulgating goals they can also identify with and have a stake in is important.

The Maori party's putting such a prospective focus on marketing itself in these areas can also be seen as a response to the challenges the party is facing in fostering and retaining voters and
members (the number of which has reportedly slumped to 600), activists and candidates through its existing focus on the Maori electorate and electors. While this declining trend may well already have been in evidence prior to 2011, the emergence of the MANA party has exacerbated it; and, due to MANA's strong competition for these same core electors and activists, made it much harder to reverse.

The existence of MANA has also tightened the contests for both the Maori Seats and broader Maori electorate and thus worsened the situation of diminishing marginal returns which any party (particularly the presently dominant incumbent) faces in terms of having to put in ever-increasing effort for uncertain and limited electoral (indeed, somewhat 'all-or-nothing') returns. I would be honestly surprised if the Maori Party increased their share of the Maori Seats from 3 to 4 or more at the next election. Instead, they could conceivably lose one or more seats to either MANA or the Labour Party. Their ability to rely on a strong return in the Maori Seats to ensure the party's parliamentary presence remains viable and grows is thus curtailed, which leads to their understandable renewed emphasis on campaigning for the party vote in both the broader and Maori electorates.

The interesting thing about the Maori party's party vote strategy is that it generates a greater relative return the worse they do in the Maori Seats. This is because to take advantage of any gains in party vote, the Maori party's share of the vote must entitle them to more MPs than they would otherwise have gained through electorate wins. To date, this has never occurred due to the Maori party's strong returns in the Maori Seats and their comparatively weaker returns on party vote.

However, as they will have only three electoral seats going into the 2014 General Election and face the very real possibility of losing one of those, they would only have to improve their share of the party vote to about 3.3% if they hold all 3 of their existing Maori Seats to gain 1 List MP for a restored Caucus of 4. Alternatively, if they lose an electorate seat then they would only require about 2.5% of the party vote to benefit from an additional List MP to maintain in size if not exact composition their Caucus of 3. As a point of reference, the latest Roy Morgan poll had them on 3.5%, making the benefits of pursuing a party vote strategy quite obvious - whether as electoral insurance or as a means for growth.

Given the strong challenges the party now faces in appealing to its traditional constituency which looks set to contribute to a relatively stagnant or declining electoral return from the party's Maori constituency, and the consequent expanding utility of both a party vote campaign and appealing outside that constituency, the rhetoric emerging from this year's Maori party conference over these issues is entirely unsurprising.

The Maori party does not necessarily face immediate extinction; and, with its decision to continue on with its existing leadership team, it can probably be assured at least a presence in Parliament after the next election.
However, its attempts to be the 'elder statesman' of Maori politics are finding themselves undercut by the youthful vigour of the MANA party and reasonable challenges from experienced Labour campaigners.
It may well have sat down, engaged in a rational decision-making process and come to the conclusion that its prospects for attracting support or a future from a vision and focus directed more exclusively toward Maori are becoming somewhat stagnant, and that the best thing to do going forward is to parlay the party's existing prominence as a strong and stable centrist coalition partner whose Caucus have reasonable profile and respect into a broader electoral appeal.

If it is serious about this effort, it will face an additional issue in the form of heightened questions about the nature of its character, values, identity and legitimacy; particularly given the previous adverse consequences of its earlier transition of identity from 'outsider' protest party to 'insider' member of the governing establishment. 

While its supporters will no doubt be reassured that the party has decided to rebuff speculation that it might drop the word "Maori" from the name, will the Maori Party one day be Maori in name only?