The Don Brash speech at Orewa that led to a dramatic about face in the National Party’s race relations policy managed to stir emotions and political affiliations like no other opposition policy has since a Labour-led coalition government first took office in 1999. The fact that National’s new leader targeted Maori policy as the vanguard for a new and improved National opposition doesn’t really surprise. He couldn’t choose the economy because few are moaning about that. No, Maori policy was the option because race relations is one area where National could make gains on the Government without any serious policy detail. That’s because Maori and race relations are presently polarizing the population in spades. The seabed issue has become a nationhood issue. Who really owns our beaches, or the land for that matter? The people are also sick and tired of 19th century land claims, Waitangi protests and general disharmony as repeated at this year’s February 6 “celebrations”.
Ok, bravo to the National Party for their “smart” (inciting racists) move. They leapfrogged Labour into first place in the polls. So what? The election’s 20+ months away. The Labour-led Government didn’t think so, if their swift moves to limit the “damage” are a guide. These moves included ordering a review of Government Maori and race relations policy and the much maligned seabed and foreshore policy that hasn’t been released yet. Geez, Trevor Mallard is the new “Race Relations Minister”, so something must be up. Of course, the Maori MPs were livid and heated exchanges ensued. Even talks of forming a new broad based Maori political party have again arisen. On the face of it, the Labour Party has a problem.
Using pragmatic politics, National has realised the folly of chasing the Maori vote. A recent poll of eligible Maori voters had National support at well under 10%, so why bother? Brash and National have practically given up on the Maori 15% of the electorate and decided to concentrate on the other 85% for potential votes. Most of this country’s centre voters are Pakeha and willing to be swayed by policies they like, regardless of where they come from. Actually, Labour could risk doing something similar. In other words, are the Maori MPs really a problem? Although going against the wishes of its Maori constituents and their members of Parliament is potentially dangerous, that danger is relatively small in comparison with the potential backlash of policies that are unpopular with the
majority of the electorate.
Labour is, at present, in a strong electoral position in the Maori seats. The only potentially serious challenge (besides maybe New Zealand First) to that position is a yet to be established rival Maori Party. Historically, Maori parties haven’t done too well at election time and considering the differences in opinion within Maoridom on the way forward, it’s hard to imagine such a party getting off the ground. Even if many of the Maori MPs were to split, Labour has the organisation, mana and political links to replace them with winning candidates by next year’s election. Although Labour should aim to retain its core Maori support base (and its MPs), this isn’t the major issue for the Party. As at least one writer said, everybody must realise that Pakeha voters win elections, not Maori.
Although the poll result must have caused consternation within Labour, the ensuing response was a classic example of pragmatic politics. The single most important aim in a democracy for any government must be to tailor policies that will find favour with the majority of the nation’s citizens in order to improve the chances of re-election. This is what Helen Clark wants from her “reviews”. The Government is beginning to realise that by and large they had it too easy for too long. Only now are the scandals starting to hurt, such as Lianne Dalziel and the “Lying in Unison” debacle. The Government’s continued success and “legacy” may hinge on the centre voters staying put in 2005 and making policy that will annoy and upset as few people as possible.