Despite the feel-good factor over diversity being prevalent for most of the first week of Parliament, it is clear that management of Māori issues is going to be a challenge for Jacinda Ardern’s second-term Government.
The Māori Party will complicate the challenge.
The potential for tension on a range of Māori issues sits at many levels – specifically within Labour’s Māori caucus, between the Labour Government and Opposition parties, generally around Māori aspirations that are unmet as Labour resists rocking the boat and, not least, between the Labour Māori caucus and the Māori Party.
Even before the Māori Party’s walk-out of Parliament on Thursday, it was evident it will have a disproportionately loud voice over the next three years. Its MPs don’t do anything quietly.
The co-leaders, Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, walked out in protest after Speaker Trevor Mallard refused to hear Waititi’s point of order in Māori.
Whatever his motives, it was a bad call by Mallard in a split-second not to hear the point of order, based presumably on an assumption of what Waititi was saying in Māori in a fairly stroppy tone.
Mallard had the skills to hear it, diffuse it quickly, explain it and move on.
The incident didn’t come out of the blue. In the preceding days there had been correspondence from Waititi challenging the rules about speaking in the Address-in-Reply debate.
Waititi unreasonably accused the Office of the Clerk of making racist decisions and pursuing an agenda of oppression against tangata whenua in response to a perfectly polite letter to him from the deputy Clerk of the House about how the Address-in-reply debate runs.
Mallard had ruled fairly in furthercorrespondence that if they wanted to speak in the debate on Thursday this week, it would be counted as their maiden speeches – they would not get a second maiden speech on Thursday next week (when their supporters are due to attend.)
Mallard has since accused Waititi of taking bad advice from his chief of staff (Waititi’s father-in-law John Tamihere is acting chief of staff) and grandstanding – and Waititi has since said it was a case of the tyranny of the majority.
With Mallard’s amplification, the Māori Party’s first participation in a parliamentary debate has been as a party of protest.
The episode will have annoyed the Government – it has been a major diversion away from its own maiden speeches by Arena Williams and Ibrahim Omer and its policy programme.
But if the Māori Party wants to define itself as a party of protest, it may actually help Labour.
It may help it to clarify its own direction and make Labour look constructive and reasonable as it navigates a raft of potential flash-points over the term.
They are likely to include Oranga Tamariki, crime and corrections, water claims, repealing the public veto on Māori wards on local councils, and the setting up of a Māori health agency.
One of the big policy issues this term will be whether growing calls for”by Māori for Māori” amounts to unhealthy separatism or a solution to persistent problems.
The most immediate issue of the cabinet is how to handle the latest Oranga Tamariki crisis.
In the wake of Newsroom reports that Māori siblings were removed from longterm foster care because the foster family was Pākehā, Oranga Tamariki chief executive Grainne Moss may be unable to survive another week.
What will survive however, is Oranga Tamariki, despite Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft adding weight to Māori Party calls for a separate Māori agency.
Ardern and new Children’s Minister Kelvin Davis are adamantly opposed to a separate Māori agency, arguing that the best response is for Oranga Tamariki to expand its collaboration with iwi. That was in Labour’s manifesto and in the Speech from the Throne.
But most of the manifesto dealing with Māori is broad-brush stuff and short on specifics.
Even if Labour is not always clear what it wants, the Māori Party may help Labour work out what it doesn’t want.
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