National plans seduction of Maori Party

It’s tempting to think we have a robust democracy with regular elections involving different political parties putting up a range of policies to be discussed and debated before we, the people, make our choices. A government is thus elected (or cobbled together as we do under proportional representation) and these polices are enacted.

This is a fantasy of course. Where are the policy differences between the main parties? (Or for a start – where are the policies?) Ask anyone to find a substantive policy difference between National and Labour and most will struggle.

Most of these differences are slight rather than significant. Both parties will however dance on pinheads as they seek to emphasise and exaggerate the shades of grey between them. It will be an election high on hyperbole but poor on policy. It will be loved by those who can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi but those looking for differences such as between tea and coffee will be disappointed.

If parties campaigned on the policies they believe in rather than what they announce it would be a more honest process. Instead National have been swallowing dead fish, to use Lockwood Smith’s words. They have been adopting policies they neither believe in nor support in order to make themselves more attractive to voters. Meanwhile Labour haven’t put up any new policy at all.

What will be more interesting is the policy mix we can expect from negotiations after the election.

The latest opinion poll puts National on 53% and Labour 35%. This eighteen point difference is likely to narrow to 10 or less as National releases policy and the rhetoric heats up. Smaller parties get more media oxygen during a campaign so their share of the vote will increase. It’s possible National, Rodney Hide and Peter Dunne may have enough seats to govern but this is unlikely. Similarly Labour and the Greens will not have the number to form a coalition so the king-making party is most likely to be the Maori Party.

Maori Party MPs have recently been talking up the possibility of going with National. It’s partly to ensure they aren’t taken for granted by Labour but it’s also to test the water with their own supporters.

The conventional wisdom is they would be foolish to support National when the big majority of Maori Party voters give their party vote to Labour. So for the Maori Party to avoid being seen to betray its supporters there would have to be some big carrots and National could well oblige.

Through the late 1990s National delivered significant devolution of funding to Maori organisations for such things as the provision of primary health care and educational initiatives. This was in the first MMP government with New Zealand First having made significant inroads into the Maori vote.

National would delight in the opportunity to devolve more social services in this way as a mechanism to reduce spending levels over time as well as lessen central government responsibility for the social mess our politicians have created. Both these objectives can be met by more bulk funding of services to community organisations. 

For Maori it would be sold as a step closer to tino rangatiratanga where Maori organisations are given significant resources and make decisions for themselves without interference from government. For National it would involve the opportunity for devolution and diminution of state provision of social services.

In this way the Maori Party could give National just the circuit breaker it needs to make up for having to swallow all those dead fish. Through the Maori Party they could develop radical funding mechanisms for the delivery of social policy which would give the impression of empowerment but the substance of locking in existing social inequalities.

As a policy goal devolution to community level is an important long-term objective. Empowering families and communities has been left out of political thinking for a long time. Most recently we have seen the powerlessness of communities as politicians have refused to devolve power to allow communities to force the closure of pokie venues, liquor outlets or any manner of other activities which prey on the poor and vulnerable.

This not what National has in mind however. Their objective will be to keep community hands off the levers of power while devolving responsibilities through provision of minimalist funding. They espouse the freedom for businesses to operate rather than the freedom of communities to object.

It will be a substantial package National offers the Maori Party in return for a confidence and supply agreement but if accepted it will be a poisoned chalice with the Maori Party providing political cover for more of the 1990s.