Labour’s Māori MPs have limited political capital now they have crushed their only viable challengers, the Māori Party. Jon Stokes argues they need to make every post a winner in 2019 before Māori-specific funding initiatives fall away ahead of next year’s election.

There are definitely benefits to partying on your own.

This is a concept Māori electoral roll voters should reflect on when they ponder the almost universal criticism that flared following the weekend announcement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – and interestingly fronted by NZ First’s Shane Jones – to allocate $100 million in funding to help develop Māori-owned land.

This is a mere 10 percent of the $1 billion a year Provincial Growth (slush) Fund NZ First negotiated, among a string of other perks for its backers and causes, from Labour in order to help them form the Government.

The Labour Māori electorate MPs bring seven seats to the Labour Party mix, just two fewer than the whole NZ First caucus. However, because the seven MPs are already in the Labour tent, they are not able to negotiate with anywhere near the same strength as Winston Peters could and did following the 2017 election.

In fact, by so comprehensively defeating the Māori Party at the last election and taking back all Māori seats, the Labour Māori caucus has also done away with a bogey man to threaten the party power brokers – and especially Grant Robertson – with when they pitch specific funding and policy for Māori.

The Māori Party is basically gone, and it is unlikely to be able to rise from the ashes. And with its demise goes genuine competition in the Māori seats, and therefore any risk that Labour will again lose them. The seven seats become a sure bet, and the party can focus its attention on areas where there are genuine political risks, or there is potential to increase the party vote.

The Labour Māori MPS have a problem. They desperately need to show those Māori voters who helped to fulfil their strategy to take out the Māori Party – and its last two remaining MPs at the last election – that it was the right thing to do.

The caucus needs to show the promises they made from opposition were real and would result in improvements for Māori. This must be delivered with specific demonstrable funding and policy. Not the “all boats are lifted by the rising tide” approach promoted at the last budget by the Labour Party leadership. Because, this patently is not true, as the Māori waka continues to suffer from low tide syndrome irrespective of the stages of the cycles of the moon.

Labour likely does want to reward Māori voters and the Labour Māori caucus, and I suspect they will this year, as we have already seen. However, Labour has a problem: non-Māori voters do not like Māori-specific funding. They can tolerate billions for the restore-the-Northland-electorate-to-NZ- First fund, and lets-pay-back-the-horse-racing-and-fishing-industry. But the reaction is ‘no way’ to Māori-specific funding.

In the Budget last year there was no additional funding for Māori, in fact Te Puni Kokiri saw its funding decrease. Instead Robertson talked up universalism. This year we will see significant financial and policy gains and focus for Māori, because Labour decision-makers know they have time for the inevitable criticism and backlash to die down before 2020 – an election year. Because Māori-specific funding is more likely to lose non-Māori votes. And as the party already has the Māori electorate seats, there is limited benefit in targeting this group of voters at election time. And good reason not to.

As a result, universalism and rising-tides will be back in political vogue.

This is disappointing, because Māori can demonstrate why they require specific focus and support. There is a massive failing that sees Māori dominating almost every negative social statistic. This sees Māori sicker, dying younger, twice as likely to live in poverty, making up more than 50 percent of the prison population, and having more than double the unemployment rate of non-Māori. Māori also have a young population so will increasingly become a significant chunk of the country’s productive work force, or non-productive, if something is not done to address the many serious social disparities.

But these are facts, and they get in the way of a good political cage-rattling if a government is crazy enough to target these problems. Unless of course it is required to do a political deal to help form a government. When that prize is on offer, then almost all politicians can hold their nose.

Jon Stokes is managing director of Stokes Communications a company specialising in strategy and communications advice. He is a former Māori issues reporter for the New Zealand Herald and Waikato Times.

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