Via 3 News journalist Patrick Gower on Twitter, the news that Pita Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Destiny Church annual conference this Labour weekend. Concerning news.
Except I’m not sure it’s completely accurate. According to the Destiny press release, Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Friday night Awards & Recognition event which kicks the conference off, while (who else) Bishop Brian Tamaki is the “keynote preacher” for the weekend-long event. I think this is an important distinction: it’s appropriate for Sharples, with a lifetime of support for MÄori excellence, to be present for an event which celebrates achievements in “business, management, the health and social services sectors, Pacific arts, family breakthrough and contribution to at-risk youth” for a large and largely MÄori organisation, featuring pasifika and kapa haka performances to boot.
But that’s quite a different thing to lending the imprimatur of his status as the co-leader of a government party and Minister of MÄori Affairs to the shady cultishness of Destiny’s main event. This is not to say that Sharples should shun Destiny outright: after all, as a kaupapa MÄori politician he does represent some of the group’s members, and many non-members who share some of their values. Such ‘Dark sides’ of support exist for almost every party; the Greens have their crazed dark-green environmentalists; Labour has the blue-collar rednecks about whom I’ve written previously; ACT has mostly sucked away the white-collar rednecks (and doesn’t mind admitting it) from National, but the Nats still have the worst offenders among the farming lobby and many of the least-savoury Christian sects (much of Destiny undoubtedly included). For all that they might be abhorrent to some, these are all legitimate interest groups and — within reasonable bounds — they must be tolerated and their needs entertained in a free society. Their members have as much right to democracy as anyone else, but (as with any fringe group) politicians must be extremely circumspect about the type and quantity of support that they grant.
There is a danger that Pita Sharples will be seen to pander too much to Destiny; and indeed a danger that he does pander to them. The mÄori party paddles turbulent waters at present; having compromised very heavily on the Marine & Coastal Area/Takutai Moana legislation to replace the Foreshore & Seabed Act, and now finds that Faustian bargain under attack both from the ACT party without and from Hone Harawira within. Despite the former, and probably because of the latter, they have been very quiet lately. Although they — ironically — share some common ground with Labour on the Takutai Moana bill, there remains a very large gulf between them; not least because Labour’s own conference signals a much more classical materialist direction than that which has previously obtained. Sharples and Turia are no fools, and can see that remaining a client of Key’s pragmatic-instrumentalist National party is a hiding to nothing — even with the ACT party likely out of the picture after the next election, the likelihood that they can maintain common cause once the other has outlived its immediate use seems slender. So they feel like they need another support base, and it must be very tempting to team up with a charismatic leader such as Brian Tamaki at a time like this.
It would be ruinous to do so. Most obviously, this is because outside of his most loyal followers — his 700 Sons — Tamaki’s is an illusory sort of strength, based on the smoke and mirrors of a showman’s art rather than upon deep loyalty and conviction. This much was clearly shown in the 2005 and 2008 elections, where the Destiny Party (and later the Family Party with Destiny’s express endorsement) failed to come close to success, due largely to a lack of internal cohesion. Destiny has failed to demonstrate — even at the height of its profile five years ago, under a government largely hostile to it — that it could mobilise a meaningful number of votes.
The second, and by far the more important reason, is the abhorrent nature of the policies and principles Destiny stands for — crude Daddy State authoritarian Christian conservatism with a brownish tinge; illiberal, intolerant, homophobic and misogynistic, quite opposed to where Aotearoa is heading. And that’s to say nothing of the corruption and appalling social dysfunction endemic to the evangelical cults of which Destiny is an example. The sorts of scandals which currently rock the church of Tamaki’s own “spiritual father” Eddie Long in the USA must undoubtedly also exist within Destiny. This is essentially the same package of qualities which turned the Exclusive Brethren to political poison for Don Brash’s National party in 2005. Because of this deep and fundamental disconnect, and New Zealanders’ innate distrust of folk who think they’re ‘exclusive’ (especially if they’re brown, wealthy or religious), the reality is that an alliance between the mÄori party and Destiny would likewise be poison, and would probably circumscribe any future prospects of working with either of the two main parties, not to mention utterly ruling out the Green party — with whom the mÄori party shares the most policy in common.
So there is no easy course for the mÄori party in the long term; the swell is heavy and the winds both strong and changeable. But to extend the nautical metaphor, Destiny is a reef; not an island. Better that they paddle on by their own course and seek more solid ground.