Maori Party want training wheels off

Maori Party co-leaders Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell say they're done scrapping for small policy wins. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Maori Party has spent nine years in government, and co-leader Marama Fox believes it’s well past time for the training wheels to come off. As part of Newsroom’s election coverage, Fox speaks about her growing impatience and the catching up New Zealand still has to do.

Marama Fox has had enough.

The Maori Party co-leader and first-term MP has never been one for mincing her words, but leaning back on the couch in her office, she says the last three years in Parliament have pushed her to the brink.

“I’ve run out of patience: it was kill them with kindness all the time before, and it was smile and nod, smile and nod, put your points across and smile and nod.

“Now I just go, well you know what - boom” - she snaps her fingers - “and ba-boom boom boom boom boom, and amen, see you later, thank you very much.”

She’s tired of pandering to people, tired of having the same old arguments about the Treaty, land rights, water rights.

“They think that they’re telling me this argument for the first time ever, that this is novel...but I have heard this argument my entire life, from every sphere of life, and so then I lay out what I think and people think that I’m being abrupt and cut people off.”

She doesn’t like being impatient, would rather “go back to being smiley”, but not at the expense of covering serious issues.

“Sometimes journos only want to come and talk to me because I’m happy to sing a song, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to get down and dirty into the grit of the detail of what we want to do to change this nation.”

Done with 'sideline scrapping' for policy

Fox and her co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell hope the Maori Party will be in a position to change the nation after September 23, talking about a revolution led by “the rising generation of this country” who don’t fear Maori values and representation, bypassing the “old-school parties of the left and the right”.

The rhetoric is somewhat out of line with the party’s polling (rising slightly to 1.5 per cent in a recent poll) but the resurgence of Labour means Fox and Flavell could yet play a critical role in forming the next government.

It’s perhaps with that in mind that Fox describes the election of Jacinda Ardern as the best tactical move Labour has made in nine years of opposition.

She reserves particular praise for the selection of Kelvin Davis as Ardern’s deputy, although warns he will have some work to do to win back the trust of Maori.

“It’s the same bus with new drivers and we’re pretty happy that Kelvin’s in the shotgun seat, because he might need to have a bit of ammunition in that gun to keep them honest.

“In the past, what has happened is if they have to make a decision between what’s right for Maori and what's popular for the country, they throw Maori under the bus, so we have hope that this is a new direction.”

Some have speculated the ascent of Davis could win back Maori support that had drifted to the Maori Party, but Fox does her best to seem unconcerned.

“If you have a look, where are all the rest of their Maori MPs? They’re off the list, so they've forced our people to choose between one and the other, where we used to say MMP meant more Maori in politics.”

She wants more of the Maori Party in politics, too: Fox says she and Flavell are over “trying to scrap for the sideline bits of policy”, and want a government that trusts them to make real changes.

Does that mean National hasn’t trusted them?

“They’ve not given us a fair enough go - we get the pilot and when the pilot’s good, then we get the big dog…

“It’s way past time to take the training wheels off,” she says, pointing to the success of initiatives like Whanau Ora and new te reo Maori organisation Te Matawai.

Work still to be done

While the party remains focused on winning or holding the Maori seats, it has encouraged attempts to broaden its appeal.

Among those contesting seats for the party are a number of people from Pasifika backgrounds, as well as their first ever Asian candidate.

Fox says it wasn’t a deliberate tactic: the candidates approached them, tired of being “hamstrung inside someone else’s political policy”.

“It’s a natural fit for Pasifika and Maori to stand together, it’s a natural fit for Asian people to stand with Maori…

“Culture speaks to culture - you don’t have to explain yourself to other peoples of culture because they get it.”

As Maori issues become mainstream, so too have the leadership of mainstream parties become more Maori: until Turei’s resignation, six of the seven parties in Parliament had Maori leaders, deputies or co-leaders.

Does that threaten the Maori Party? Not at all, Fox says, pointing to education as one area where improvement is needed.

“We still have Maori people who walk into schools who say, ‘Don’t teach my kids any of that Maori stuff’, we still have kids who walk into class and say, ‘I’m not Maori, I’m South African’.

“I look at him and go, ‘Boy, your last name’s Whata and you’re my nephew’.

“We still have that happening in this country because our mainstream education has not caught up.”

There are pockets of excellence, Fox says, but they’re still the exception rather than the rule, speaking about her own education at upmarket Christchurch schools.

“I didn’t know anything about the Land Wars or the Treaty or the migration to Aotearoa, or the tribes - not one thing, yet I had one of the best academic educations that this country has to offer...

“All I’d been told is that we beat our kids, we’re greedy because we want land rights back, we’re greedy because we want water rights back, we’re greedy because of all those things,
yet when I went to kohanga reo I find out actually, I’m born of greatness.”

'Sick of sitting on the sidelines'

Fox has described herself in the past as “pretty left-leaning”, but says the party can work with National or Labour - and NZ First if necessary - depending on who offers them the best deal.

The party doesn’t really do bottom lines, but there will be some negotiating points; top of Fox’s list (but not necessarily the party’s) are Te reo Maori as a core school subject, along
with a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the abuse of children in state care.

“Abuse is endemic in this country, the horrific results of that abuse are gang membership and the rise of gangs, are incarceration and disproportionate incarceration, are sexual abuse and PTSD and the poor mental health state of our nation, and are the highest rates of suicide in the world, and all of those stem back to some type of abuse at some point, somewhere.”

She has spent the last term revving up the party membership while Flavell serves as Maori Development Minister, but is more than ready to take up a ministerial role if she gets the chance.

“I’m sick of sitting on the sidelines in ministers’ offices and not being able to make the decisions that I know need to be made.”

So which roles appeal to her? An easier question might be which ones don’t: there’s housing (which she could fix “in a heartbeat”), tertiary education, Maori development, Whanau Ora, health, education, Corrections…

“Only a minister?” her press secretary quips. “Prime Minister,” she replies, joking (I think).

But the real prize for the former teacher would be Minister for Children - a role she knows she may have to scrap for.

“I’m going to say something quite controversial right now: I know Jacinda wants to be the Minister of Children, but I'm pretty sure if it came down to someone who’s had nine and worked with children in education their entire lives and someone who hasn’t quite yet but wants to - I know she’s a great advocate for children, but mate, I’d fight her for that role.”

“Not very harshly,” she adds, leaning towards the dictaphone. “I’d fight her with my words, with my words.”

That’s about as diplomatic as Fox gets - whether she gets to unleash those fighting words as a minister remains to be seen.