Insensitive … now wait for the “hypersensitive”

Commenter Alexandra at The Standard picked up on a report by Radio NZ that John Key joked about TÅ«hoe as cannibals:

“The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner,” [Key] said, “which wouldn’t have been quite so attractive.”

Now, a reference to cannibalism in any leader’s speech is bad enough, but joking about it in the context of the government’s betrayal of TÅ«hoe, and Key’s failed attempt to speak for the māori party regarding that betrayal would be absurd if it wasn’t so insulting. Not only that, but the reference to Ngāti Porou was all the worse, given the complex history of those two iwi, which was also in the news recently but of which Key appears to have no awareness.

Two main questions occur to me: first was this a calculated move to distance himself and the government from the sense he has “gone native”, or just an idiotic off-the-cuff remark? (Essentially: bad will, or just incompetence?) And second, what will it take to prevent the māori party from walking away? As Marty Mars says, this is a significant matter of the mana of TÅ«hoe, and the mana of Māori in general. It cannot just be left to lie: either the māori party walks away, or some sort of meaningful reparation — you might call it “mana enhancement” — must be offered by the government, not only to TÅ«hoe and the party, but to Māori in general. The māori party are in a tough spot; as I argued yesterday, Māori don’t have the luxury of just throwing their toys whenever they don’t get their way. But something has got to give.

Oh, and as per Pākehā Standard Operating Procedure on issues like this, wait for the Māori response to be declared hypersensitive.

Update: Same being asked by Lynn at The Standard.

Update (20:25) Much has become clear since I wrote the post. Some updated thoughts follow.

First, it’s clear that this wasn’t an inadvertent, casual comment — it was, if not a planned and sanctioned statement then clearly a calculated one intended, after apparently growing discord at the Lower North Island National party conference this weekend past, to win Key and the government back some of its reputation for driving a hard bargain with Māori, and for not being a PC pounamu-wearing hand-wringer. So the initial diagnosis is “bad will” rather than “incompetence”. This was a simple continuation of the negotiative process which Key chose to stall by unilaterally ruling out the return of Te Urewera National Park; Key providing an opening for TÅ«hoe to continue dialogue, or not.

Second, it’s pretty well-calculated. It would have been easy for TÅ«hoe (and others) to publicly overreact and confirm Pākehā New Zealand’s worst instincts about them. It would also have been easy for the māori party to walk away from the coalition deal, and I do think this is another factor in favour of that course of action. But they haven’t done so. Tamati Kruger’s response that the joke was “not funny, in poor taste and unbecoming of a prime minister” is pretty strongly-worded but shows its own sort of gallows-humour, indicating that Kruger (seasoned negotiator that he is) understands the game being played, and is prepared to continue playing it, given some caveats. Having today said that Key had lost his nerve Kruger has held his. He was magnanimous and humorous when speaking to John Tamihere and Willie Jackson about the topic on RadioLIVE this afternoon, but pretty clear that the deal is still to be closed, and it will now take some closing.

Third, Key has publicly insulted both TÅ«hoe and the māori party in the past week, and this does still need to be addressed. All parties seem to have chosen to address it around their respective negotiating tables, rather than in public, but behind closed doors these people will be furious at having been so treated, and for all that they’ve gained ground with the redneck street, that’s ground National will need to make up inside the wharenui. To put it in terms Key, as a former currency trader who worked a lot in Asia, would understand: the price of doing business just went up. And it went up quite a lot, because failure to accede to that increase means TÅ«hoe can now justifiably walk away from negotiations which are already almost two years underway, claiming that the negotiating team has no legitimacy, having been unilaterally overruled by their own prime minister, apparently just because he changed his minds. If they do that, expect every other current negotiation to go the same way. That’s an unacceptable political cost for Key before the next election, let alone the one after (by which all outstanding claims are supposed to be settled).

Fourth, a public sense is beginning to build of Key as the one who is endangering the relationship, after the opposite sense developed around Hone Harawira’s comments last year. If the coalition between National and the māori party fails, it will be seen as his failure to manage the relationship adequately, and that damages his own master narrative of being an efficient political manager and an all-round nice guy. As marty mars said in another comment on The Standard, the concessions granted to Māori by Key’s government are “barbed” — they can’t be revoked or withdrawn without sustaining substantial political damage, which means that if the māori party sees genuinely irreconcilable differences and an opportunity to dissolve the agreement without being seen as unreasonable, they are able to do so. But as Neil says in the comment thread below, and as I’ve been arguing to little avail for ages, the māori party’s best play vis-a-vis either major party is the threat to go with the other. Labour partisans and much of the wider left wish it were not so, but if Labour get a sense that they have a monopoly on the māori party’s attentions again, then further concessions will be rare and threadbare.

Fifth, the KBR response is just what you’d expect, complete with gratuitous references to the alleged taste of human flesh, and ginga jokes. Sigh.

Thanks for the discussion so far. Responses to other comments below.


21 thoughts on “Insensitive … now wait for the “hypersensitive”

  1. I think it is time to walk – create distance. The ‘wins’ are there – the review of F&S, the UN Dec, the flag, Whanau ora and so on. Whilst some may argue they are not real benefits they are real enough for many maori. For example once the UN Dec was made it cannot be unmade. That Dec is going to help maori immensely because forever it will be flaunted in the faces of those who oppose indigenous human rights.

    The maori party have the aces not the gnats – this is the time to play them, but I so wish they had a decent left camp to go to.

  2. It wouldn’t pay for them to walk away now – in order to bargain with Labour they need to credibly still have the option of going with National.

    (slight not of caution over that joke – we don’t have a transcript of the entire thing. I’m always nervous about not having all the facts)

  3. Key would also get “eaten alive” at a PPTA dinner, or even just at Robyn Malcolm’s house.

    Talk about twisting it out of context. I would agree with you if Key called Tuhoe a bunch of cannibals. But he didn’t.

    Back to the real issue – is Tuhoe’s claim such a no-brainer that no negotiation is required? I haven’t seen a lot of analysis about what Tuhoe are really asking for, and the implications. But the left-blog consensus seems to be that Tuhoe should get everything they want. In which case, I missed Goff’s promise to do so in his speech of reversals.

  4. Talk about twisting it out of context. I would agree with you if Key called Tuhoe a bunch of cannibals. But he didn’t.

    I think Key intended to make himself the butt of the joke – “I’m so unpopular at the moment…” but it was in poor taste because of the connotations. he should have been more careful.

    Interestingly Stuff is now reporting that this was part of a larger exchange on the Tuhoe issue but still no transcript of the entire thing.

  5. The problem for the mp is taht if they walk away, ACT will be calling the shots- how scary would that be.

  6. It wouldn’t pay for them to walk away now – in order to bargain with Labour they need to credibly still have the option of going with National.

    Labour’s relations with the MP have been pretty rocky since the election too…

  7. All this speculation of Maori Party leaving the table to join the likes of the Greens in the blissful land of irrelevance, is just wishful thinking. Its hard to believe that Turia and Sharples would not simply phone Key or wander into his office to trash any festering issues out. Surely their relationship is still OK on that level, and hasn’t become a frozen wall of silence not seen since Mallard formed a human partition between Clark and Glenn.

  8. I put this in the same basket as trying to shake hands with a schoolgirl in Afghanistan, and further back, when he said:

    “One of the unique things about New Zealand is that we are not a country that’s come about through civil war or a lot of fighting internally. We are a country that’s peacefully come together,”

    and later, but relatedly:

    “I would utterly reject the perspective that Hone Harawira has on New Zealand’s history and the role of the settlers and others in New Zealand.”

    and not knowing where he stood on the Springbok tour when he was at varsity, and so on and so forth.

    He knows what he knows, and doesn’t see much mileage in knowing that others know differently.

  9. As you say Lew, it’s not just a joke: it’s a “joke”, smack-bang on top of unilaterally defecating on years of good-faith bargaining and blatantly lying about Turia’s reaction – as grotesque and insulting as cream on a steaming cow-pat.

    As to where to from here, the MP would do well to look ahead and remember that all future progress rests on one thing only: retaining the balance of power. (yes, Mavis, they do hold it: bollocks to the “Key didn’t have to” crapola – it was get MP’s C&S or be wagged to oblivion by ACT)

    Read today’s comments on the Stuff website, note the next poll, and think about NACT’s majority next year should Key pull this out again a month from the election. Bringing it to a head now would not only negate the “lap-dog” image and allow time for genuine consolidation and mana-building, but stymie the last-minute gambit that – this week’s events prove – Smiley wouldn’t hesitate to employ. Remember too, that with the MP back where its party vote calls home, the current Left/Right poll gap is only about 2%.

    Demanding a deal on Te Urewera (a la Mt Taranaki perhaps) plus the original pledged putea for Whanau Ora on the pain of instant divorce would be a win-win.

  10. Ak, I believe a Taranaki-style deal, that is, one where the park is gifted to the Iwi and then gifted back to the state, has been explicitly ruled out by Tuhoe.

  11. Just updated the post to incorporate my most recent thoughts. So I won’t repeat them here.

    Pat, the thing is that negotiations have been ongoing since before the last election. They were nearing an agreement, and Key gazumped his own negotiating team. Nobody credible — least of all their own negotiators — is arguing TÅ«hoe should get everything they want and a pony; that would mean more than a million hectares of both Crown and private freehold land, more money in cash reparations than the current deficit, and some other stuff as well. But an agreement which Key himself not long ago called “complex but workable”, which had buy-in from Cabinet, OTS, DOC, local government agencies and a whole range of civil society stakeholders just got nuked on a whim. Is that how a negotiation is supposed to work?

    Eric, I don’t think this will be the end of the coalition. But more than that, I haven’t yet drummed up the motivation to invest in iPredict. I suppose I should; I have plenty of things which occupy my time, but at least this one could make me some pocket money.

    ak, Hugh’s right. A deal like Taranaki, and a co-management deal, have both been ruled out. That doesn’t mean the end of the discussion, but it’s a strong indicator. Also: what poll numbers are you looking at to get a 2% gap? Does this presume Winston rises from the dead (and that he’s “the left”)? I make it somewhere in the low teens.


  12. I’m not sure if I follow you Lew. Are you saying that Tuhoe’s negotiators never expected to get ownership of the national park?

  13. Neil, no, I’m saying that’s exactly what they expected — but not co-management, or the requirement that they “gift” the park back to the Crown.


  14. oh ok, I was trying to interpret the “least of all their own negotiators” bit.

    I’m not familiar with these negotiations. Could you give a brief summary? If such a thing is possible.

  15. Neil, that was just to say that the negotiators were somewhat resigned to the fact that they’re only going to get a fraction of what they might rightfully claim. The park is just a fraction. I didn’t make up the million hectare figure.

    I wouldn’t claim to be able to outline the settlement for you, but Tamati Kruger does so in the RadioLIVE link above. It’s 25 minutes long, and the response to Key’s “joke” comes at the end.


  16. I think it was just the PM’s way of admitting that there were consequences to letting his National Party influence government decision-making on negotiations – such as getting a roasting, coming under angry fire if he was at a Tuhoe dinner.

    If anything, he was trying to re-assure other Maori that nothing had changed on “their” issues.

  17. Ah. Thanks Hugh and Lew, (and Cindy-lou Who!) Can’t say I’m surprised now I think back, twas an empty gesture indeed at the time (tho anecdotally I’ve heard that it may have opened a wee chink in the upcoming negs…)

    Yep Lew, to some He never died and now dwells among us stronger than ever (crucifixion’ll have that effect – how else to explain his current 3% on near-zero coverage?), and most emphatically and vengefully Left – albeit via a rabid anti-Nat motivation. With a long time to rustle up another easy 2% when the wolf (health cuts and strident MP for starters) really starts panting at the retirement village door.

    Just counting His current rating, working off the latest Morgan and swapping the MP 2.5% gives a neat 49-51 split. Margin of error stuff, which might explain the cold draught whistling up the Tory er channel and causing the uncharacteristic sphincter-tightening of late – including the subject of this thread.

  18. Well I can see why the Taranaki iwi (whose name escapes me) went for the Mt Taranaki deal – it in turn had a precedent in the Ngai Tahu agreement in the late 90s which involved a similar agreement for Mt Aoraki / Mt Cook. I presume that the ownership/gift back formula is seen by the iwi as satisfying their need for mana and recognition of the legitimacy of their claims without having to cope with the public fallout of ownership of an iconic area in which many New Zealanders have an emotional investment.

    That being said it seems Tuhoe are less interested in symbolism / mana and more interested in actual management. From what I understand they are willing to accept some conditions being placed on their proposed management of the Urawera Park, but they want their ownership to be real, legal and ongoing – substantial, as opposed to symbolic.

  19. I just love it when people on the left really buy into the concept that NZ First is rising from the dead. Its pathetic thinking and just makes you lot stupid.

    As for what John Key said. Poor taste probably. Racist, no. Offensive well you won’t even get Tuhoe going that far. Calculated? Absolutely.

    That calculation carries a risk but it also has a benefit. Forget the poor performance National and John Key have had as late. This week and the two decisions John made. First to say no to Tuhoe and secondly the joke, will likely shift the mood that was gathering by some about John Key and National. It stops the talk of National pandering to Maori while the joke allows Pakeha New Zealand to nod their head in how pathetic the media is getting so fussed over the matter.

    For the left, no doubt such actions just entrench their view of John Key and National. But the left have shared that view before 2008 and will always have that view. That plays into Key because the more attacks are focused on John Key. The more it plays into National’s hand. Labour and the left just look like bad losers when they attack John Key.

    The risk is it strains the relationship further with the Maori Party and Tuhoe, but also that it gets Key again off-side with the media. Now that Key has no to ownership then the crown must negotiate something that will appease Tuhoe. Meaning while symbolically Tuhoe looks like a loser. Its likely they’re going to get a number of goodies their way that will make other settlements difficult. For the Maori Party they’re going to pin more and more hope on a Foreshore and Seabed deal. They’re actually rather close on that matter. It goes way beyond the present Foreshore and Seabed At. Co-management, veto rights, rights to other minerals (i.e. not Gold, Platinum, Oil and something else), right to address via the courts but also likely a body to allow negotiation directly with the crown. Development and usage rights etc etc etc.

    The sole matter that is causing contention is title. National want “public domain” because they believe its politically viable but for Maori and the Maori Party its problematic. Therefore, I think National will be forced to include something else. It can’t be Maori Title since pakeha New Zealand won’t like it. But it has to be something better than “public domain”.

    If the Maori Party and National can’t agree on the Foreshore and Seabed relationship then the whole thing is toast. The Maori Party have been quite willing to be kicked around at times and not have Maori seats in Auckland etc. But they’re not viable as a political movement or party without a fundamental deal on the Foreshore and Seabed.

    Thus the risk John Key did this week, is further strain that relationship requiring a fundamental deal on the Foreshore and Seabed whilst playing the race card to pakeha New Zealand. But what happens with pakeha New Zealand if National does a F&S deal?

    The risk with the media is a real danger. For all the talk from both the left and right about bias, its rather all nonsense. Technically, our newspapers tend to have columnists from the right but most of the people doing the actual news are from the left. The media play soft cock to whoever is in power until the time arrives when its game-on and what you do as a politician is no longer going to be ignored. For John Key and National that time has come.

    Therefore, the more Key plays to the PR side of politics the more difficult he’s going to have in delivery of policy and ideas. Increasingly, we’ve seen policy be released that is luke-warm and sometimes rather criticised. The media is critically looking at John Key at the same that Goff is slowly getting more and better media exposure. No longer can Key use a slip-of-the-tongue approach and the media will forget it.

    Thus we have reward and risk. The reward outweighs the risk. But the risk is going to linger there.

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