Te Pati Loco?

Normally I would not write about Maori issues. I may have been living in NZ for over 25 years but I do not feel that it is my place to opine because I am not an expert on Maori history and politics and do not speak Te Reo (because as anyone who seriously studies comparative politics will attest, foreign language proficiency is a bottom line requirement for scholarship in the field unless you only study countries and cultures that speak your mother tongue). Hence in the past I deferred to Lew to write about Maori issues here at KP, but since he has departed there is no one left to do so.

However, in light of the recent carkoi and protests organised by Te Pati Maori (TPM) in response to the Coalition of Cruelty’s budget, I thought I would touch briefly on a matter of Te Pati Maori praxis. I was dragged into the debate about the protests when I noted on social media that the use of the term “strike” to characterise the direct action was done in error or for dramatic effect since “strike” is codified in employment law as a collective withholding of labour services by employees from employers in the context of workplace disputes. If the labour service withdrawal is called by collective agents and follows the procedures for engaging in such action (giving notice, etc.) then it is a strike “proper.” if it is done by individuals or groups of workers without collective authorization, then it is a “wildcat” strike that may be deemed unlawful by employment courts. A general strike is a labour service withdrawal across economic sectors done for economic and/or political purposes, which is difficult because it requires unity of purpose and action by employees working in different productive areas, which in turn requires agreement between union agents and agent/principal agreement in every union on the action. That is a big ask.

Taking a day off from work to go to a protest, be it by using paid, unpaid or medical leave or no leave at all is not a strike no matter what one calls it. Workers assume the employment risks associated with such actions. Employers can weigh their responses according to the law and their relationship with employees. That could even include giving people the day off or paying them overtime to stay on the job, among other options. Again, the nature of the relationship between boss and worker outside of the legal framework can influence an employer’s response for better or worse.

I figured that since I have written two books and a dozen or so scholarly articles about comparative labour relations, including the subject of strikes and State responses to working class collective action, that my neutral if pedantic observation about the proper use of the term “strike” would be as unremarkable as it was incontrovertible. I was wrong.

To be sure, the use of the term “strike” in the Te Pati Maori protest literature, which explicitly references it as a display of Maori economic power, lent itself to the view that Maori were going on strike. As such, right-wingers seized on the term to call for employer retaliation against those who joined the protests. There was much agitation on the Right about violations of contract (individual or collective) and the penalties that should be levied. The PM weighed in with the comment that workers should be careful about striking and that strikes should be done on weekends because that way they would not be as disruptive.

Besides the fact that a PM should know the difference between a strike and a protest (rather than cynically feed into the “strike” narrative), it is pretty rich for him to suggest that strikes are best done on weekends. As I said on social media, by that logic we should take our holidays on weekends as well. The whole point of strikes, protests, demonstrations and other types of direct action is precisely to be disruptive of the status quo as given in defence of a cause or to air grievances. A protest without disruption is like an army without a fight, full of rebels with causes but no stomach for consequences. Protests and strikes are about assuming collective and individual risk. The risk may be large or small depending on circumstance, but in one way or another it hangs over acts of “unauthorised” direct action in most every instance.

Having said all of that, I understand the call to strike in the Te Pati Maori literature as using the original sense of the term, which means “to deliver a blow.” The protest was organised as a symbolic blow against the reactionary anti-Maori thrust of the Coalition of Cruelty’s policies. It was not about Maori labour service withdrawals per se.

For my troubles in clarifying what is and what is not a strike and how the term was misused in the call to action by both supporters and opponents of the protests, I was called condescending, paternalistic, pompous, a lightweight, and best of all, a “racist c**t,” the latter by a lady who surely must kiss her mum and perhaps children with that mouth. As I wrote to her, she must be fun to be around.

All of that aside, I then got the pleasure of watching Te Pati Maori leaders speak in and outside of Parliament on the subject of the protest and much more. Although Ms.Ngarwera-Packer presented her views coolly, her counterpart Mr. Waititi was at his bombastic, hyperbolic best, taking the tradition of Marae oratory to a level that even that tax-funded weiner-tugger Shane Jones cannot match. He threw out gems such as “if Maori are 60 percent of the prison population then (we) deserve 60 percent of the Corrections budget,” a feat of logic so extraordinary that it would be akin to saying that NZ should pay the PRC, Russia and rightwing extremists most of the intelligence budget because they are the ones being spied on. To be frank, I have always found Mr. Waititi to be a bit of a buffoon and charlatan, but then again, that is probably the old Pakeha racist codger in me doing the assessment (I have been characterised as such before).

Which is why I paused to reflect on my reaction to his rants. Others have already noted the hypocrisy of TPM being funded by taxpayers and gaining prominence via “Pakeha” procedures and institutions. They have noted with alarm the seditious rhetoric of Mr. Waititi’s wife, the daughter of none other than that paragon of indigenous resistance, John Tamihere (although Mr. Tamihere’s management of the Waiparera Trust, for whatever its faults, was first rate during the pandemic and is widely respect in the West Auckland community). Now the TPM is calling for a separate Maori parliament, presumably to run in parallel to the “Pakeha” parliament and be equal to it. I am not sure how it will be funded and what outcomes it hopes to achieve, but it provides some food for thought about political alternatives even if it has a snowball’s chance in hell of materialising while the current government is in power.

The proposal is interesting in part because one of the features of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) democratic system like that in NZ is that it allows small, narrow-focused or single issue parties to get elected and press their interests within parliament, using coalition-building and vote-trading as a means of doing so. The ACT and Green Parties started out this way and have now widened their political appeals beyond their original core policy platforms. Whether that is for better or worse is for others to decide, but the general thrust for both of them was to start narrow and then widen their platforms via the incorporation of other agenda items and constituencies. ACT has gone with the gun rights crowd, incels and racists; the Greens have gone with identity issues, animal rights and rainbows. Both have had success by doing so. NZ First has done something a bit different, using malleable nationalist populism as a vehicle for Winston Peter’s political aspirations. To his original xenophobia and self-loathing Maori appeal (to blue rinse Pakehas), he has now added anti-vaccination conspiracy weirdness and slavish “anti-woke” corporate bootlicking to the party repertoire. Like the broadening shifts undergone by ACT and the Greens, it has served his party well and allowed it and ACT to become the tail-wagging rump ends of the Coalition of Cruelty dog.

Te Pati Maori is a different kettle of fish. Gone are the days of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, who tried to play the centrist–some might say assimilationist–parliamentary game.They supported both Labour and National-led governments while confining themselves to practical pursuit of “reasonable” goals, that is, objectives that could be achieved by and within the system as given. Truth be told, the Maori Party record was mixed at best, but one thing that did come out of its emergence on the political scene is that outside of Maori-related issues (say, rural health and lower-income welfare support), it had zero to little impact on NZ government policy. The “big” policy decisions were made by Pakeha-dominated parties, including things like foreign and defence policy (I wrote about the Maori Party’s lack of consequence in NZ foreign policy other than on international indigenous affairs in this scholarly article).

Today’s Te Pati Maori is different. More than a just a party name change, it is overtly anti-Establishment and “progressive” in orientation (whatever “progressive” means to them, which may not be what other “progressives” think that they are). As the proposed Maori parliament suggests, TPM rejects the system as given. That is why it uses the word “strike” without regard to the Pakeha convention known as Employment Law. It’s spokespeople openly speak of “revolution” and government overthrow even if it is unclear what they actually mean when they use those terms. What is clear is that TPM is more about political theatre and symbolic politics than delivering tangible policy outcomes to and for their constituents. If anything, its marginalization within the political system has increased along with its militant rhetoric and actions. It might be too early to tell, but the carkoi protests could be seen in that light: as a lot of bluster and fanfare but no tangible impact or results to show for them. In fact, the response from most other parties was to either lambaste or shrug and ignore Te Pati Maori’s antics. Time will tell if the impact of the protests are more subtle and longer-term in nature but for the moment TPM stands alone, seemingly barking into the wind.

Again, that got me wondering as I stopped to check my white privilege. Am I being unkind to TPM? Or am I just another racist cracker bleating about the rise of a righteous and strong indigenous voice?

I found my answer in Gramsci. It occurs to me that, because TMP often refers to its actions and rationales in neo-Marxist terms with a smattering of Paulo Freire, Franz Fanon and Norm Chomsky thrown in, that Te Pati Maori sees itself waging a war of position within the “trenches” of the NZ Pakeha State. That is to say, it is working from within to disseminate its “counter-hegemonic” vision and policy prescriptions in civil and political society. Its focus is on grassroots organising, starting with Maori and reaching out from there into other “progressive” communities such as those grouped under the Green and Left Labour banners. It is not worried about converting the old Pakeha elites or engaging in parliamentary compromises because, as the recent census shows, Maori are growing in demographic numbers while Pakeha are declining. Given the structure of MMP, that growth can translate into increased seats in whatever parliament they chose to stand in, and given the youth appeal that they presently feel that they have, time is on their side. Along with forging alliances within the Labour and Green parties, unions and other civil society organisations, TPM is using a long-game strategy where what it is doing now sows the seeds for its successes down the road.

They may not be so loco after all.

So what to make of Te Pati Maori? Are they just nuts (as the term “loco” implies)? Are they communists, extremists and separatists as Winston First and Tugger Jones claim them to be? I would argue no to both suggestions. What TPM is doing is a time-honoured yet new form of politics in a social media age, where their theatrics are part of a grassroots appeal to marginalised and disaffected (not always the same) groups, especially proletarians of colour. By working “in the trenches” TPM can slowly promote an ideological re-orientation away from neoliberal vestiges (because neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine but has become over the course of two generations a social construct that frames our way of life) and towards a type of post-modern indigenous-centric perspective infused with working class-based values and perspectives. This view is self-realised and awake rather than woke, defiant but not always disrespectful, confrontational but not conflictual, independent rather than (Pakeha) dependent, cooperative and collective rather than corporate in organization. It may take time for the TPM-led movement to congeal, but the stirrings are there and the people are ready for generational change to take effect. That is the plan and TPM sees itself as the instrument for converting that plan into praxis.

Or so they hope.

11 thoughts on “Te Pati Loco?

  1. Crikey. Please take a step back, recognise everyone using race politically (including the people swapping between race and culture to confuse the situation), and run through your logic again.

  2. Interesting article. What I find fascinating in the current parliament, aside from te Pati Maori, is the rise in all parties of young, articulate, highly educated, feisty new members. The old guard, the old established political Maori families of all stripes are being replaced. These new political figures are not intimidated or in awe of Parliament, they appear to see it as a necessary vehicle to guide and lead their future. They are fluent bilinguals, politically aware and unafraid. Some have crumbled but most are still fully representative and unlike te Pati Maori are not shouting for extreme solutions. I am pakeha, my husband is Maori, we like to keep an eye on what’s happening.
    Barbara Matthews.

  3. Thanks Barbara,

    As I said, I am not expert on Maori politics. I do not know what happened inside the Maori Party/TPM over the last few years but clearly there has been big shift within it, both ideologically and in terms of personnel. My interest in writing this somewhat tongue-in-cheek post was to attempt to figure out where TPM proposes to go with its current approach, something that as Winston Peters has claimed, is “separatist” and “extremist” in nature (and which most racists and rightwingers would agree with). I found the Gramscian war of position to be the most likely answer, albeit modified for this day and age in pursuit of an indigenous minority agenda.

    I am not sure what to say about the heavy weight TPM puts on census data that shows Maori to be just under 18% of the NZ population. They speak of “one in five” NZers being Maori and of high Maori birth rates. But Asians now make up around 17% of the population and our immigration policies favour immigration of skilled labour from Asia and India. It is true that Pakeha have declining birth rates but the slack in being taken up by these immigrants, not Maori. And immigrants have high reproduction rates. So I am. unsure that basing apolitical strategy on the assumption that demographics favour Maori over the long-term is entirely justified.

    The recent reports of purported census data tampering/manipulation by the TPM president and his associates could be a very heavy blow to the party as well as those individuals associated with what may be illegal use of census data. I am not sure what illegalities did occur if they in fact did and have read that in terms of the census itself the statute of limitations has expired. So what is left are violations of privacy and manipulation of electoral information for partisan political gain. Not sure if this is correct but the scrutiny that has been brought to TPM because of the allegations is clearly unwanted and will complicate their broader appeal amongst progressives and maybe produce a backlash on top of the already present resentment against its leaders. Anyway, food for thought.

  4. Insulting Shane Jones is beneath you. Your accuser was wrong in part, you’re no racist. Why spoil an interesting article? And let’s face it, accusing Jones of pomposity is a bit black kettle.

  5. Sorry Max,

    But Tugger deserves everything bad that comes his way. He is a corrupt, venal, bombastic blowhard who has betrayed everything he originally stood for and whatever he was back when he entered politics. As for pomposity. There is a difference between being able to understand and articulate complex subjects with a degree of confidence and merely spewing florid verbal diarrhea. Sort of like the difference between an metal kettle and a tin pot.

  6. Your otherwise interesting article is not the place for such an attack. By all means criticise Jones – you’ll have a receptive audience! – but time and place.

  7. A change in the zeitgeist occurred after World War 11. New Zealand soldiers returned home, including the 28th Maori Battalion (my late brother-in-law was a combatant). No longer could Maori men be excluded from Working Mens’ Clubs nor the Masonic lodges, furtive yet influential aspects of life in the smallest of NZ towns. Things shifted. Social acceptance and class are other layers perhaps harder to alter despite NZ’s strong egalitarian ethic. Winston Peters benefitted from this post-war sea change. he became the beneficiary of the hegemony of “white privilege.” Clever, with the gift of oratory (since soured) he took the path of uni/Law/corporate mates/new partner/rugby/et al. Jones followed in his slipstream. Less Bond street than Winnie, but another orator, in both English and te Reo.

  8. Te Pati Maori is another kettle of fish. Its leaders flash ambiguous signifiers while railing against colonisation. They are looking for this in new domains (you will know far more about this than me, Paul.) They wear the chin moko with LIPSTICK and recently, false eyelashes, facial moko with Homburg Victorian headgear, pounamu with military style jackets. Are they adopting the colonisers’ image or using it ironically? Hard to tell as they are not unintelligent. They use inflammatory rhetoric with bilingual fluency. They show a modicum of disrespect for Parliamentary protocol but take reasonable care not to take it too for in their own interest. Is this revolutionary activity or piss-taking?

  9. Hope I haven’t closed this discussion down! Not my intention.
    Barbara Matthews.

  10. Hi Barbara,

    No offence taken. I left it for others to comment on your remarks as I pretty much said everything that I wished to in the post. For me TPM is about political theatre and the symbology of their costumes is a nod to earlier Maori resistance figures with an eye to recruiting a new generation of activist youth. I am not sure that the strategy will succeed but it worked in the last election as a vote-getter. Of course, if it turns out that Tamahere and the Waipareira Trust illegally used census data to manipulate electoral rolls, then whatever strategy TPM chooses will be undermined by that subterfuge.

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