Symbolic bidding war?

datePosted on 10:47, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

I have long defended the māori party’s decision to enter government with National on two grounds;

  • The decision is theirs to make on behalf of those Māori who form their constituency, not the decision of well-meaning Pākehā, or Māori who vote for other parties. They made clear before the election that it might happen; there is no credible argument for bait-and-switch.
  • By emphasising that the relationship of Māori with Labour is at arm’s length, they send the signal that no party can afford to disregard Māori as Labour did with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Furthermore, if they can make the relationship with National work (and admittedly that’s a pretty big if) then it puts the māori party in a strong strategic position to promote a bidding war for the Māori policy agenda come the 2011 election and beyond.

The Key government’s record on Māori policy so far has been patchy at best, with the decision to exclude mana whenua seats from Auckland governance, and a distinct lack of targeted recession relief for māori who are especially hard-hit by the recession, showing that there’s still a lot of work to do on that relationship.

So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard National Radio’s report this morning that Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be reviewed, thereby possibly withdrawing us from the other axis of evil of four countries who refused to do so. That can of worms wouldn’t have been re-opened unless there was a very good chance indeed of movement on the issue, since National would severely endanger its relationship with the māori party by ratifying Labour’s decision. So, this looks to me like the first symbolic shot in the bidding war for Māori favour. Or perhaps the second – with the first being Mita Ririnui’s private member’s bill to entrench the Māori seats.

The common objection from ideologues who opposed the māori party’s decision to work with National is that symbolic things are meaningless – a view taken directly from the subaltern Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, who oversaw the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. In defence of the then-government’s decision to join that other axis of evil, he said:

I’m actually more than a little surprised the Mâori Party is prepared to back something which effectively offers indigenous peoples no more than aspirational statements.

The trouble is, unless preceded by banners bearing symbolic aspirational statements declaring a society’s position in principle, progress marches slowly. The Labour government recognised this in its grounds for refusing to sign the UNDRIP, viz, that it was possibly incompatible with our current laws. That’s the point best illustrated by another non-binding UN declaration, on Human Rights, whose most significant principle was that rights were not dependent upon local legislation but were declared to be universal, with the consequence that local legislation must change to meet the declaration where a conflict exists. By and large, local legislation in many signatory states has duly changed to meet the declaration, in spite of its non-binding nature. That is because its symbolic value is more than its practical value. (Amartya Sen is among those who makes this point, for example here). So it is with the UNDRIP – it presents an aspirational position toward which NZ may strive, along with practically everyone else.

Now, Power’s statement is carefully hedged with the words “as long as New Zealand’s current framework for indigenous rights cannot be compromised” – so actual policy change is still a long way off. But symbolic matters like this are a necessary condition for real progress, and the decision to review indicates that the government intends to take Māori issues seriously.

L

3 Responses to “Symbolic bidding war?”

  1. SPC on May 9th, 2009 at 22:34

    There are really only two reasons for this arrangment – it legitimises Maori as a partner in government (from now on, as it is National the party which might go off on it which has agreed to this) and to prevent anti-Maori backlash politics.

    Being at the table restores mana whether anything is achieved or not. And National has to play nice – at least with their words. This beds in the bi-cultural nation trend of recent years and makes it “systemic”.

    I doubt however whether a “bidding war” is going to arise in 2011 – the Maori Party is well aware that they are threatened by National abolishing “their” seats and the Nats can get them much more cheaply (simply delaying the abolishing of the seats) than Labour.

    Forecast – National will go for a SM electoral system with Maori seats option to replace MMP (rather than MMP without Maori seats) – but make the retention of the Maori seats provisional and subject to further review.

  2. Lew on May 10th, 2009 at 12:54

    SPC,

    Being at the table restores mana whether anything is achieved or not. And National has to play nice – at least with their words. This beds in the bi-cultural nation trend of recent years and makes it “systemic”.

    Quite right. That’s why I think there’s a win here for Māori even without significant immediate policy gains – it normalises Māori politics as part of the democratic mainstream. That’s the māori party’s primary purpose.

    I doubt however whether a “bidding war” is going to arise in 2011 – the Maori Party is well aware that they are threatened by National abolishing “their” seats and the Nats can get them much more cheaply (simply delaying the abolishing of the seats) than Labour.

    This seems to me an obvious site for a bidding war. If Labour campaigns on entrenching the seats, then in order to win Māori support or ensure ongoing good relations with the māori party, they will at least need to commit to maintaining the status quo.

    Forecast – National will go for a SM electoral system with Maori seats option to replace MMP (rather than MMP without Maori seats) – but make the retention of the Maori seats provisional and subject to further review.

    I think National will come to accept MMP now that it’s working for them, and now that they have experience with consensus politics. I think we’ll see tweaks, but not a wholesale change which would be viewed as an attempt to entrench their power (and thus vulnerable to some of the same criticisms leveled at Labour over the EFA).

    L

  3. […] today. But my argument is essentially unchanged from what I wrote on 8 May 2009. You can read it here. L Tags: symbolic politics, The Standard, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples […]

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