Our politicians began the political year marking the birthday of the founder of the Rātana church, at a celebration that came with a helpful reminder to keep their focus local, writes Thomas Coughlan.

Campaign managers like to remind politicians that all politics is local. Voters may care about geo-politics and academic measurements of inequality, but when they’re in the polling booth it’s potholes down the main street or the crumbling local hospital that ultimately decides which box they’ll tick.

While Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern discussed wellbeing and the international order at the World Economic Forum in Davos, her ministers headed to Rātana to take the mood of the church and hear the concerns of one of New Zealand’s most significant Māori communities.

The summer break has not compelled deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters to end his longstanding feud with the media. Back at work and sporting a new haircut, within seconds Peters was drawn into a war of words over the Government’s KiwiBuild numbers. He shot back at some media, alleging their ratings were too low for him to bother with them. 

Peters and the Government faced a warmer welcome at the Church. Rātana is plastered with posters reminding visitors that it is illegal to consume alcohol in the town, but Shane Jones — perhaps evincing just how much this popular Government could get away with — managed to have the crowd laugh heartily at a string of jokes about medicinal cannabis reform and drug use.

But other, smaller issues were at play too. Rātana church member Joe Everitt had media scratching their heads when he took to the microphone to complain about fees charged by the Government on him in the course of his work for the church. He said the law levying the charge should be thrown in the bin. 

While media pondered whether he was making a case for lower taxes, it was later explained Everitt was complaining about the fees charged to register as a marriage celebrant — no doubt a big issue for aspiring celebrants, but not one often raised in front of some of the country’s most senior ministers. 

You could chuckle, but it’s a helpful reminder that there are many small and often over-looked issues being discussed at tables around the country which never make it to the table in the Cabinet room.

One person who took it seriously was Jones.

“That’s a robust challenge put by the elder of the church that our traditional institutions that the community relies upon are not weakened by the unforeseen consequences of Government policy,” he said. 

While there was no doubt Government MPs were the most popular at Rātana, Peters’ comments to the crowd suggested it was cautious not to take the warm welcome for granted.

“Words are not actions,” he said, promising to do more, before reminding the crowd that Ardern would have wanted to be in Rātana herself.

“She would far prefer to be here than in Davos in cold Switzerland”.

National tries to woo some useful friends

Rātana is no longer a one-team event, however. While the church has historic ties to the Labour Party, Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett and a cohort of Opposition MPs attended their own ceremony. Bridges talked up the party’s long rapprochement with Māori. He noted the work under done under John Key and Bill English’s leadership, and paid tribute to the work of Treaty negotiator Chris Finlayson.  

National spent the day making its case for support in the staunchly Labour church. Photo: Thomas Coughlan 

He said party had done the mahi  for Māori, and joked that had yet to pay dividend at the ballot box: National’s MP Ian McKelvie managed to win only a single vote at the Rātana ballot box in 2017. Bridges joked that even that voter was probably lost. 

But jokes aside, Bridges gestured towards what could become a brutal and divisive issue among Māori voters. Introducing Bennett as National’s “drugs Tzar”, he noted Māori communities had long lived with the scourge of drug and alcohol addiction. Church founder Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana himself observed the pain caused by narcotics, as abuse swept through Māori communities in his own time.

The crowd quietly absorbed Bridges and Bennett’s comments, without letting on whether they had hit their mark. Bridges even thew in an aspiration to resolve historic Treaty claims by 2024

Bridges closed his speech paying tribute to Dame Tariana Turia, the former Labour MP and Māori Party founder, who was among the attendees. Turia’s ability to work with National on issues of mutual benefit during her time in John Key’s governments should serve as a reminder that while McKelvie is unlikely to produce a windfall of votes at Ratana, National’s message to Māori need not be carried exclusively by its own MPs: allied political parties work just as well.

Those votes are now looking for a home and Bridges and the Government have every reason to fight over which way they head. 

Bridges knows communities like Rātana are loyal voters, but he also knows his party needs friends as much as it needs votes. His path to the Beehive could rest with Māori party or another socially conservative Māori movement, which could wield outsize influence and stop New Zealand First from playing kingmaker in 2020. 

But comments by other National MPs suggested the rhetoric of the past would be difficult to bury.   Freshly minted spokesperson for Māori-Crown relations, Nick Smith, noted his concerns about two classes of citizenship opening up between Māori and non-Māori in New Zealand, although he couldn’t name any examples of this occurring.

For its part, the Māori party made a case for its return to Parliament. President Che Wilson told the crowd has spent its time in the wilderness. The experience had taught it humility and it was ready to listen better to Māori and prepare for a return, he said. 

Other parties were in the mix as well. Geoff Simmons fronted as the new leader for TOP, replacing former leader Gareth Morgan, whose appearance at Rātana in 2017 was widely derided. Simmons made a radical call for greater devolved sovereignty to Māori, something which did not go down too well with the National MPs seated behind him. 

Just hours into the political year, the field of play for 2019 was set: drugs; sovereignty; and the ever present struggles within the coalition.

There are plenty of gains to be made in the Māori seats: the Māori party’s disappearance in 2017 means the Māori electorate have a far higher share of wasted votes than in the general electorates. Those votes are now looking for a home and Bridges and the Government have every reason to fight over which way they head. 

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