Wednesday, 24 July 2019
Ihumātao: The class conflict in Māori politics opens up
Two and a half years ago I wrote about the class divide opening up in Māori politics. This was a divide between an emerging indigenous elite stratum and the Māori working class. It was this divide that was the basis of my prediction that the National Party would lose the next election on account of losing their coalition partner, the Māori Party – who eventually assumed a role as the representatives of the indigenous elite. This was, in fact, the election outcome and Labour took power in a coalition with New Zealand First. I then wrote a piece after last year’s Waitangi Day expressing my delight that Labour at least seemed to be making good on its plans to ditch the class interests of the indigenous elite, which National had increasingly beckoned to, in favour of working-class interests and a universalist politics.
It seems Labour has trouble finding an issue where it cannot in some way stuff up. The situation in Ihumātao is a case in point. Ihumātao is a village in Auckland, the oldest settlement in the city, where a planned housing development threatens to go ahead on sacred Māori lands. This development is proceeding with support of two particular iwi groups that have little relationship to the tangata (people) who live in Ihumātao. The group of rangatahi – young people – advocating for the villagers go by the name SOUL – ‘Save Our Unique Landscape’. They are currently undertaking a courageous protest action surrounded by police. The land at Ihumātao presently in dispute was confiscated by the government in 1868, as part of its wider plan to displace Māori from the land at that time. It has never been returned. The land was sold by its private owner to Fletcher Building, one of the largest companies in New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has claimed her government will not be intervening in the situation. She forgets that the police officers currently at the site trying to defuse the situation are in fact acting on behalf of her government. The Māori caucus has, astonishingly, been similarly coy on the issue.
The Ihumātao situation is – or should be – a watershed moment for Māori politics. It demonstrates the potentially explosive nature of the looming conflict between a growing self-interested class of moneyed iwi leaders, and those Māori who are working-class or poor and utterly destitute who have not benefited in any way whatsoever from treaty settlements. This class conflict was arbitrated in the 1980s, with the setting up of the Waitangi Tribunal, and has only deepened ever since. Iwi have become corporations controlling a collective multibillion dollar portfolio of assets. Yet Māori on average are three times worse off than non-Māori across socio-economic indicators. How has this persisted for thirty years with no change – sometimes even decline – while such wealth has been concentrated in the hands of so few? The answer is the same old one – the realities of capitalism, state action in ‘redressing’ the violence of colonisation, and the formation of a new economic class as a result of that ‘redress’.
However, if you looked at what the liberal-left commentariat has produced you would not know that what is going on at Ihumātao is the result of a class conflict. It seems that some people still struggle to analyse Māori politics in terms of class, while others wilfully misrepresent the issue. Today’s Radio New Zealand story by Meriana Johnsen writes that “a generational divide is at the heart of the ongoing battle to stop a housing development at Ihumātao” – as if the problem was merely oldies versus youngies (note that this is the narrative the iwi representatives are trying to promote – one of elder disrespect). Julia Whaipooti, chair of JustSpeak, said on Twitter that she is “struggling with what is happening at Ihumātao” and said although she sympathised with the protesters, “it’s not black and white”. Criminal lawyer Kingi Snelgar (who is from my neck of the woods) said that the division was part of “the divide and conquer policy of the Crown” rather than an organic unfolding of a class conflict over the last forty years – he has since acknowledged the existence of a corporate class within Māoridom. Green MP Golriz Ghahraman tweeted that she “stand[s] with the mana whenua of Ihumātao”, although given that this is a dispute between the so-called ‘legally recognised mana whenua’ and the actual tangata of the village, she is rather unhelpfully contributing to a particularly unclear picture of the shape of the dispute and the interests of the parties involved. She is just one of many people who I’ve seen make the same mistake while talking about this conflict. Her colleague, Marama Davidson, was clearer that she stood with those “protecting the land”.
The liberal left is, as usual, playing catch-up on these issues. Remember, the liberal left was tricked by the Māori Party’s seemingly progressive stances against the Crown and the “Pākehā government” that they in fact were a part of. Last year, I wrote:
The liberal-left’s problem was that it wrongly saw in the Māori Party’s deeply conservative culturalism a reflection of its own identity politics. Because, for the liberal-left, any talk about empowering marginalised people is automatically progressive, it imbued the Māori Party with progressive significance. Although this may have been the Māori Party’s original intention, the liberal-left did not notice the changes that the party underwent during its time in the National coalition government. The party slowly inducted leading members of the Iwi Chairs Forum and the Iwi Leaders Group, and adopted increasingly conservative policies, while the liberal-left only saw its rhetoric about Māori disadvantage and the fact that the Māori Party voted against a significant amount of National’s legislation. It believed the false claim that the role of the Māori Party was to hold the National government to account from its confidence-and-supply position, which, as we can see from the Green Party’s struggle in the current government, was never a legitimate claim. It thus also believed the gratuitous tantrums of Marama Fox after the party’s election loss: statements that Māori “lost their independent voice” and “returned to their abusers [Labour]”. In reality, the Māori Party was, as any coalition partner is, crucial to the upholding of the National government. This is also what working-class Māori voters saw and why they responded with vengeance against the party.
Regardless, it really is past time to think seriously about the real class divides in Māori politics that have opened up, and how this makes old alliances impossible. It is not just about colonisation anymore when it comes to Māori and Pacific disadvantage. At a time when inequality is starker than it ever was during the birth of the ‘neoliberal’ era, we have to start taking seriously the problem of class, and how elites within “our communities” (if you’ll pardon what I think is tortuous phrasing) have ascended to positions of such power and privilege.
I wish all the protectors at Ihumātao well and, although I cannot personally be there, I stand with all of you in your struggle.