Willie Jackson’s Problem

WILLIE JACKSON HAS A PROBLEM – a big problem.  Since 2017, he has led the charge to secure more resources for Māori and, by winning them, has assumed a pivotal political role in the quest for tino rangatiratanga. With Jackson’s successes, however, have come heightened expectations of more. Just how high Māori hopes have grown is manifested in the contents of the Draft Plan for implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) So alarming are the recommendations contained in this document, that the Māori Development Minister is refusing to present it to Cabinet.

Jackson’s refusal is highly significant. If the plan has a promoter of Māori economic and social development as stalwart as Jackson shaking his head, then the Draft Plan must be effectively indistinguishable from the He Puapua Report.

Therein lies Jackson’s problem. The moment the He Puapua Report entered the public arena it was too late to order it shredded. It had become a ticking political time-bomb that could only be defused with the co-operation of all sides of the Māori sovereignty debate. It’s only saving grace was that it was not – yet – an official government document. This was a godsend for Jackson and the Labour Government. They had been given a few crucial months to do whatever was needed to prevent a potentially fatal political explosion.

It explains why Jackson and his colleagues asked Maoridom to develop its response to the UNDRIP/He Puapua challenge first, ahead of Pakeha, and behind closed doors. They were hoping that, perceiving the explosive character of the Plan, the good and the great of Maoridom would bend all their powers to reshaping its recommendations into something Jackson’s Labour colleagues – and the rest of New Zealand – could live with.

Unfortunately for Jackson and Labour, that is not what happened. After 70 hui, held across the country, the mood of Maoridom was made strikingly clear. UNDRIP was a hard-and-fast commitment. The radical vision of He Puapua was not to be to be finessed away with fine phrases. Rangatahi, the rising generation of young Māori nationalists, would accept nothing less than a full-on, Te Tiriti-driven, co-governed and bi-cultural Aotearoa.

How radical is the Draft Plan? It is revolutionary. How else to describe its call for one justice system for Pakeha and another for Māori? The late Moana Jackson would be proud of the document, because, essentially, it reflects his vision of the future. The softly-spoken revolutionary’s body may lie with his ancestors, but his spirit is strong among that part of Maoridom for whom Tino Rangatiratanga and Mana Motuhake have become non-negotiable components of Aotearoa’s future.

That “responsible Maoridom” decided not to come through for him, or Labour, must have hit Willie Jackson hard. So hard that he was forced back onto that most traditional of Labour precepts: the fundamental decency and common sense of the New Zealand working-class. Jackson’s interim solution to the Draft Plan’s ideological inflexibility is to divide the intellectuals and ideologues responsible for He Puapua from ordinary, hard-working, Māori New Zealanders:

“I know what the average Māori will think and they’re not walking around every day thinking about the United Nations’ Declaration of Indigenous Peoples – they’re thinking about their housing, their health, their education.’’

This would sound a lot more convincing if Jackson’s Pakeha colleagues had not been aggressively selling the notion that Māori housing, health and education will only improve when the rest of New Zealand starts living up to Te Tiriti o Waitangi’s implicit promise of “partnership”. Generally-speaking, working-class people have more on their minds than politics. But, they aren’t deaf. Tell them that their future and politics are intimately entwined often enough, and loudly enough, and, eventually, they’ll start paying attention. Quite unintentionally, Labour may have kicked-off a revolution of rising expectations.

Such is the essence of Jackson’s problem: he can neither withdraw, nor water-down, the Draft Plan without exposing the Labour Government to the most withering political fire. His Pakeha colleagues face the same problem – in reverse. If the Labour Cabinet signs up to a dual legal system, then the party can kiss the 2023 election good-bye.

Jackson understands this completely:

“You can imagine some of the wants or asks from [Māori], but as I remind them, it’s not just about them. It’s about what do we want to do as a government and how do we want to honour that declaration and how do we realistically go forward getting people to recognise there are indigenous obligations without them thinking we’re going to take their houses off them.’’

Which is, of course, why the revolutionary He Puapua Report should have been shredded the moment it passed from the hands of the Māori nationalist dreamers who wrote it, into the possession of those who do politics for a living.

Still, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody no good. Labour’s crisis is Te Pāti Māori’s red, white and black opportunity. Any watering-down, let alone withdrawal, of the Draft Plan will be seized upon by Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer as proof positive of Pakeha Labour’s perfidy. After five years of promising Māori the moon, after repeated pledges to institute co-governance, the Labour Government will have proved that, when push comes to shove, it is no more willing than any other coloniser to surrender its white privilege.

And to Jackson’s colleagues in Labour’s Māori caucus, Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer will jeer: “Fool me once, shame on you: fool me hundreds of times, and I must be a Māori Labour Party MP!”

Except, being roundly castigated by Te Pāti Māori just might be the best response Labour could hope for. Virtuously upholding democracy by rejecting the separatist recommendations of the Draft Plan is probably the only way this Government can remain electorally competitive. It would certainly allow Jackson to sharpen his class-based critique of Māori society. (Which as a strategy, would be even more effective if he could just to point to tangible gains for working-class Māori in housing, health and education!)

Not that National and Act can afford to just sit back with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the fun. If the Right/Left poll numbers remain relatively even, then the parliamentary support of an enlarged Te Pāti Māori – pumped-up by the protest votes of all those Māori outraged by a Labour betrayal even bigger than the Seabed and Foreshore, may prove critical to National and Act being able to form a government.

What price will Te Pāti Māori extract from National for its support on Confidence and Supply?

When John Key put that question to Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia in 2008, the answer turned out to include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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