A vacuum for a Māori voice in Parliament?

With Labour under intense pressure over the state’s uplifts of tamariki, is space opening up for an old - or new - political voice for Māori? Sam Sachdeva reports.

“Oh, you’ve got balls now Kelvin.” “Answer your emails!”

On a drizzly, windy Wellington day, the Acting Prime Minister did not receive a particularly warm welcome.

Kelvin Davis stood on the steps of Parliament, facing a crowd of hundreds calling for an overhaul of Oranga Tamariki and an end to what they called the theft of Māori children by the state.

Speaking to media earlier in the day, Davis had expressed sympathy for the views of the Hands Off Our Tamariki group, saying: “We need to do everything we can to make sure that children in the first instance are in loving, caring families, and their own family is most preferable.”

Like Jacinda Ardern and Tracey Martin, he had not watched the Newsroom video investigation of an attempted uplift which has sparked a nationwide outcry, but he at least offered a more plausible explanation for not doing so.

"I don't need to watch it to know that something terrible happened, just like I haven't seen the March 15th video to know that something terrible happened there. We know what the situation is ... and we’ve got to do something about that, that’s what’s most important."

Yet in front of the passionate gathering, Davis was heckled for about half of a barely one-minute speech, drawing cries of “Shame!” as he retreated indoors to deal with another flashpoint, the occupation at Ihumātao.

Kelvin Davis received a fiery reception as he spoke to those at the Hands Off Our Tamariki rally. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Both issues have put immense pressure on Labour’s Māori caucus to speak up for their iwi and hapu while simultaneously defending the Government, something Davis implicitly acknowledged to media.

“We never take any election for granted, and we’re working very hard to get resolutions for all of these issues.”

It is a tricky tightrope to walk - if they fall off, could another political party or movement step up to take their place?

The Māori Party’s presence at the rally was unavoidable, with party-branded flags flying throughout the crowd.

Party president Che Wilson delivered the opening karakia, while Māori Party founder Dame Tariana Turia drew people closer as she softly spoke through a megaphone about the need for change.

“For too long, we’ve allowed others to take control of our lives ... there isn’t a social worker in here that doesn’t know the right thing to do, and the right thing to do is to place tamariki in their whakapapa.”

Turia forged the Māori Party from the flames of the foreshore and seabed controversy - with some likening the debate over Oranga Tamariki and Ihumātao to those 2004 protests, could we see its revival after dropping out of Parliament at the last election?

Wilson was circumspect when asked about the seabed and foreshore comparison, saying Oranga Tamariki was “a different issue but just as important”.

Māori Party president Che Wilson (centre) says the Government has to move faster on reforming Oranga Tamariki. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“This is our people saying we are sick and tired of being picked on: the imperial wisdom of the state that white is right, we’ve had enough of it.”

He supported in principle Davis’ argument that Māori needed to pick up the wero offered by the Government and co-design new systems for tamariki, although not without a caveat.

“The challenge though is they've been holding reviews since they got into power and not much work, and now as we get closer to the election it’s just a lolly scramble.

“We need movement, they had nine years out of Parliament to prepare and obviously they didn’t do much preparation, they were too busy throwing stones.”

He did offer some support to Davis though, saying it was “rude that people didn’t give him a chance to speak - we need to think about our own behaviour”.

“The Labour Party Māori caucus, my challenge is to you is feel the power and use it - use your ability to harness change.”

As for the Māori Party’s electoral prospects, Wilson was again reserved.

“We continue to be focused, we have always said that we will stand again, and we’re going to do that.”

Activist and lawyer Annette Sykes, a candidate for Internet Mana at the 2014 election, was less sympathetic towards the plight of the “disappointing” Davis and his Labour Māori colleagues.

“They have yet to harness their potentialities so I have no sympathy to be frank ... there are Māori lawyers in this Government who understand at a most intimate level what’s going on and their minds need to be brought to the solutions,” Sykes told Newsroom.

“The Labour Party Māori caucus, my challenge is to you is feel the power and use it - use your ability to harness change.”

Annette Sykes says Labour's  Māori caucus must make better use of their power. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Where Davis and others went wrong was in seeing public-private partnerships with iwi as a panacea, when it was simply one small step along the path to change.

“There’s a much more fundamental confrontation, and they've got to say that this framework isn't working, hasn’t worked in the 40 years since its inception.

“This tinkering ... is unlikely to work, because the power of decision-making and their ability to devolve resources is still the key to step change.”

Sykes said the outrage over Oranga Tamariki and Ihumātao highlighted what she called a “vacuum” in the current Parliament which could yet be filled.

“Watch this space - if the Labour Māori [MPs] are not given significant force in step change - they keep stepping out of issues rather than stepping into them - I think there’ll be a vacuum and an independent Māori voice will emerge.”

“They’ve arrived: they’re not emerging, they’ve arrived, and if you ask me where the potentiality for any new movement [is], ask those women.”

But that independent voice may not necessarily come from the Māori Party.

Sykes pointed to another movement visible on Parliament’s grounds, a movement of women led by kaupapa Māori educator and researcher Leonie Pihama and young activist Laura O’Connell Rapira.

“They’re outside Parliament, they’re intellectuals of the greatest [order], strong courageous women, and that’s the movement I think that is radicalising the Māori world at the moment.”

She pointed to Ihumātao protest leader Pania Newton as another example of the new face of change sweeping Maoridom.

“They’ve arrived: they’re not emerging, they’ve arrived, and if you ask me where the potentiality for any new movement [is], ask those women.”

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