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.


  1. Great analysis! The MSM don't know what to make of this stoush.

  2. With you all the way, Alex, but I would caution against downplaying the role of colonisation - both in the past and the present. The entire purpose of the nineteenth century colonisers was to obliterate the world of the indigenes and overlay it with their own. Yes, this required the opportunistic buying-off of those elites willing to be bought-off, but that did not, necessarily, entail them becoming a part of the capitalist enterprise. Capitalism and its class conflicts can only come into play after the destruction of the indigenous world. Not much of that world is left in New Zealand, but Ihumatao remains. Keeping it alive is about more than class conflict within Maoridom, it is about keeping open a crack in the monolithic colonial edifice for the light of Te Ao Maori to find its way in.

  3. True Chris, in many ways, except that the class and financial conflict aspects, are being conflated/ manipulated by Fletchers, who are seeking to ensure that NO light gets through the crack of which you write. By offering money to a small number of Maori within this grouping, and encouraging conflict, Fletchers is setting one iwi grouping ,against the majority of the iwi, as was done by Muldoon at Bastion Point. It's the cynical, calculated tactic of the unethical. It's done in order to confuse those who don't look deeply enough in to the Ihumatao situation, to confuse especially politicians who just want to spout some 'quick fix' one-liner for ZB breakfast corn flakeys, and further, it's done to intimidate the true leaders like Pania Newton who have been brought up to respect the elders, but who now thankfully see that those values don't work when their respect is not offered back in return by what is in effect a small group of elders ( from a distant branch of the iwi) ,who have played on aspects of their Maori lineage within the iwi, while creeping off to nestle in to bed with Fletchers once the iwi trust was given to them. I have spoken to other elders out there who are strongly, vehemently against this mis-named agreement, which was forged in some cesspit with Fletchers without full discussion with the iwi. But those elders do not get the air time given to what I would call the traitorous ones . And they are traitors - no less than Judas - taking their 30 pieces of filthy lucre to sell off these life-giving lands for personal gain, and at profound emotional cost to the rest of the iwi - who hold a deep and abiding and unshakeable Aroha and care for their whenua. They truly WILL risk death in front of the bulldozers. I have seen that in their eyes, when they talk to me about it. Their land and the tupuna whose spirits reside there for them, are far too precious for them not to give this resistance their all. Fletchers would be well advised to do one decent corporate deed - to forgo their huge profits for once, and hand the whenua back IN FULL out of respect to the true owners from whom it was stolen in the 1800's, and out of thanks for all the other New Zealand lands they have been allowed to gobble up. Can they not give this one precious parcel back to these powerful ,and deeply courageous, wahine who are making a stand as Mana Whenua?