OPINION

They were great ads. I remember watching them and thinking: Why doesn’t Labour make ads like this for the fight in the general seats? Because the ads being broadcast on behalf of Labour’s Maori candidates were unabashed celebrations of working-class life.

They featured netballers and league players, workers wearing Swanndris, safety helmets and Hi-Viz vests. Men and women doing hard yakka, and then relaxing afterwards with friends and family. The campaign videos were recorded in supermarket car-parks and on the sidelines of muddy footy-fields, with rows of state houses as the back-drop. Yes, the faces were brown, but these neighbourhoods were blue-collar. It was working-class life, proudly displayed and proudly claimed – by Labour.

And the ads worked. In 2017 Labour won all seven Maori seats and drove the Maori Party out of Parliament. And it was an old-fashioned Labour pitch that won them. It was all about jobs and housing and health and education: a dignified life for all. Nothing about partnership and co-governance. Nothing about decolonisation and indigenisation. Bugger-all, in fact, about the Treaty of Waitangi and its principles. Back in 2017 Labour wasn’t talking to the Iwi Leaders Group or the cultural commissars, it was talking to ordinary working-class Maori – and they got the message.

What they didn’t get was the fulfilment of Labour’s promises. The videography of those ads may have been brilliant, and their scripts may have been persuasive, but they were always just means to an end. Labour was building up the strength of its Maori caucus, not with the aim of uplifting New Zealand workers of all ethnicities, but for the purposes of rolling-out the radical cultural, political and economic agendas of the neo-tribal elites and their Pakeha enablers. It was the Maori (and Pakeha) ‘decolonisers’ ensconced in the judiciary, the public service, the universities and the mainstream media who benefitted most from Labour’s elevation to government – not the Maori working-class.

The reason why Labour made one set of ads for its voters in the Maori seats, and another for its voters in the general seats, is because it could be relatively confident that very few voters in the general seats would have the faintest idea what Maori voters were watching, reading or hearing. In an age of micro-targeted political messaging, very few people, anywhere, have a very firm grasp upon what anyone is watching, reading or hearing.

But Labour’s strategists knew. They understood that if Labour ran on a clear, pro-working-class message, replete with all the iconography of working-class life and politics, and promoting exactly the same bread-and-butter policies being lapped-up by voters on the Maori Roll, then two things would happen. First, they would carry the working-class seats they already held by even bigger majorities and pump up their party vote. (Although probably not by a much as many left-wingers might assume.) Second, Labour’s opponents would scream ‘socialism!’ and middle-class voters, fearing higher taxes and a proletarian challenge to their sociocultural status, would cling even harder to the parties of the right.

It is worth bearing in mind that even with its clean sweep of the Maori seats, and factoring-in the full benefit of the pixie-dust sprinkled in voters’ eyes by the young woman referred to with disarming familiarity by her burgeoning, selfie-seeking fan-base as ‘Jacinda!’, Labour could manage no more than 37 per cent of the party vote.

Who knows what Winston Peters was thinking when he muttered darkly about the failings of capitalism, preparatory to placing his nine parliamentary seats at the disposal of a Labour Party that had been beaten soundly into second place by the Bill English-led National Party. Whatever it was, it most certainly did not include making good the failings of capitalism by adopting the policies of socialism. Between 2017 and 2020, Peters’s hand never strayed more than a few inches from the policy handbrake.

Guided by the writings of Elizabeth Rata, it is possible to offer some tentative explanations for Labour’s deeply cynical election strategy of 2017.

The architect of the party’s Maori seats strategy, Willie Jackson, is a son of the Maori working-class of Auckland’s southern suburbs. His parents and siblings played key roles in both the trade union movement and the urban Maori welfare and self-help organisation which came to be known as MUMA – the Manukau Urban Maori Authority.

Rata argues that the Treaty Settlement Process that got underway in the 1990s was predicated on what she calls “brokerage politics”. But, in order to broker something (in this case the reconciliation and reorientation of Maori and Pakeha after a century of expropriation and marginalisation), two parties are required. Accordingly, argues Rata, the Crown was obliged to call into existence modern versions of the traditional iwi (tribal) entities first encountered by its representatives in the 19th century.

These ‘neo-tribes’ acquired legitimacy by reinvigorating Maori folkways. With their emphasis on heredity and hierarchy, the outlook of these resurrected iwi was emphatically anti-democratic – a feature which suited the Crown’s purposes admirably. The prime existential fear of New Zealand’s post-war capitalist state was of an emancipatory alliance of the Pakeha and Maori working-classes, forged by idealistic Pakeha progressives in search of a bi-cultural and socialist “Aotearoa”.

That being the case, the neo-tribal capitalist regimes, called into being by the substantial Treaty settlements of the 1990s, offered little but hostility to urban Maori organisations. Their preoccupation was with bread-and-butter matters: jobs, housing, health, education and how to keep their people out of the clutches of social workers and corrections officers. To the neo-tribal capitalists, the risk with urban Maori activists was always that they would seek to access the benefits of brokerage by practising politics – working-class politics, in alliance with working-class parties.

Is that what Willie Jackson did? Finesse the entry of the urban Maori organisations, or at least their activist leaders, into the charmed circle of neo-tribal capitalism by using his influence within the Maori Caucus to ‘persuade’ the Ardern-led Government to move the Crown-Maori relationship on from the near-complete Treaty Settlement Process to the broader, constitutionally sensitive and potentially hugely divisive concepts of partnership, co-governance, decolonisation and indigenisation?

If the National Party possessed even half the strategic shrewdness and political cynicism of Willie Jackson, then it would forge an alliance with urban Maori on the basis of generously funding their self-help efforts in relation to education, health, housing and jobs. Such a strategy makes considerably more sense than increasing Maori and Pasifika poverty – to save money and keep National’s middle-class racists happy.

After all, the most sensible thing the New Zealand capitalist state can do is continue doing what it’s been doing for the last 30 years: preventing Maori and Pakeha workers from joining hands in pursuit of a progressive, bi-cultural Aotearoa. Does Christopher Luxon have the strategic smarts to order up videos for the 2026 election promising National’s ongoing support for the rangatiratanga and mana motuhake of the Maori working-class? Can Luxon and his Maori Development Minister, Tama Potaka, forge a Blue-Brown alliance?

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...