Every year on this weekend, politicians from a wide range of parties flock to Ratana Pa to mark the birth of prophet-politician Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. The event, which will be attended this year by most parliamentary parties, a few outside parliament has traditionally been used as a venue for politicians to convey what their parties are doing to raise the quality of life for Maori around the country. While it is obvious that in election year this becomes more important than ever, 2014 marks an election in which nothing will be certain for any party and the Maori vote, particularly in the 7 Maori electorates will be contested desperately.
This year, Labour has the chance to claw back their dominance of the Maori seats. Labour have a long history with the Ratana movement stretching all the way back to Michael Joseph-Savage, who Wiremu Ratana pledged his support to in exchange for a Labour commitment to Maori welfare. Savage obliged, enacting a series of welfare measures that for the first time encompassed both struggling Pakeha and Maori families, and an alliance was born between the two parties that stretched throughout the century until 1996 when Maori, tired of the unending neo-liberal agenda of Labour turned to New Zealand First instead. Since then Labour has struggled to regain the Maori vote, with the Foreshore and Seabed act and the formation of the Maori Party causing many more Maori to turn away.
However, the Maori Party are entering this election in a state of near-decay. Their six year alliance with the National Party has cost them dearly, and this is reflected in polls which often show them garnering around 1% of the vote. The continued survival of the Maori Party has been based on the popularity of Tariana Turia in Te Tai Hauauru, the home of Ratana, and Pita Sharples in Tamaki Makaurau. To a lesser extent, Te Ururoa Flavell also benefits from his incumbency in Waiariki. However, both Turia and Sharples have announced their retirement from politics this year, meaning the Maori Party will field several relatively unknown candidates in Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau. Without the benefit of incumbency, and the current state of the Maori Party, the time is ripe for Labour to seize back these seats. Despite the diminishing influence that Ratana has on the political landscape, an endorsement for either party this weekend will be vital in tipping the balance of power on way or another. Labour seem set to receive this endorsement given that their candidate for Te Tai Hauauru, Adrian Ruwhare, is the great grandson of Wiremu Ratana himself. According to Bryce Edwards, the Maori Party has also never had a particularly strong organisation base in Tamaki Makaurau and with Labour heavyweights like Shane Jones, and popular newcomers like Shane Taurima kicking around the area, Labour seem set to take that seat too.
Given that Labour MPs Nanaia Mahuta and Rino Tirikatene both have strong grips on their seats (Rino is also a descendant of one of the first Ratana MPs), Meka Whaitiri has huge support following her recent election in Ikaroa Rawhiti, and Hone Harawira certainly isn’t going anywhere in Te Tai Tokerau, it looks as though the Maori Party will only retain Waiariki with Te Ururoa Flavell. Labour will take 5 of the 7 seats, re-establishing itself as the dominant party for Maori support, and in doing so will score a big hit on the government. With the loss of two seats, National needs to win at least 58 seats to ensure that it can scrape a majority with one seat apiece from United Future, ACT and Maori. Despite currently leading Labour in the polls, National certainly don’t have support equal to 58 seats. This may be why Key has started warming to New Zealand First, as it seems that one of the only options for National right now is to secure the support of a bigger party in place of several smaller ones to win a majority.
In this way, the outcome of the Maori seats has the potential to create large shifts in government this year. The gathering at Ratana seem less and less important each year, but the movement still holds enough influence to significantly change the course of New Zealand politics. Which party we have governing us this time next year could rest on the shoulders of the Maori seats.