Mihingarangi Forbes hosted The Hui's election debates. Photo: Screenshot

Newsroom columnist Emma Espiner prepares for election night, and notices stark differences in the structure and content of the debates for the Māori electorate seats compared to the major leaders’ debates.

It’s difficult to shake the feeling that I’m watching two separate New Zealands existing in parallel; they are foreign countries, one to the other.

I’m preparing to join TVNZ’s election night commentary panel alongside Liam Hehir, Morgan Godfery and Nikki Kaye. I’ve been closely watching the debates, comparing policies and squirrelling away humorous one-liners about iconic moments during the campaign. I’ve witnessed a stark contrast between the debates for those contesting the Māori electorate seats and the debates delivered for middle New Zealand.

I waited for 90 minutes in the first TVNZ debate to hear Māori mentioned. In vain, as it turned out. I clocked a couple of whakataukī including “He waka eke noa” – a basic translation of which is “We’re all in this together.” This is an ancient aphorism whose earnest but shallow adoption by the New Zealand civil service has seen it coated in sarcasm and deployed as a verbal missile by those of us who think the evidence suggests we are not, in fact, all in this together.

I loved Patrick Gower’s handling of the Newshub leaders’ debate – it was everything you want in a mainstream election set piece; fast, funny, combative. It covered so much ground (including a healthy sprinkling of Māori “issues”) that I felt sorry for Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins having to sit down and go for another round with Tova O’Brien, 90 minutes after they first started. Hadn’t they suffered enough?

It crossed my mind to send both leaders a copy of the recent New Zealand Medical Journal edition titled “Acknowledging and Acting on Racism in the New Zealand Health System” after both ducked and weaved trying desperately not to say that the health system is racist. That’s barely even a controversial statement in the health sector these days, why did they have such a problem saying it? The answer lies in the primary audience for these debates. Middle New Zealand has a poor tolerance for racism chat so, notwithstanding the objective truth of the statement, both leaders know it’s a can of PC-gone-mad worms to go too far on the “R” word and neither of them wanted to open it.

I didn’t even bother with The Press debate. It clashed with the Māori leaders’ debate in te reo Māori on Māori TV and by all accounts I missed a lot of yelling and not much else.

The most nuanced and interesting coverage for anyone with a passing interest in peripheral New Zealand (if you’re not middle New Zealand, what are you?) has been the debates hosted by The Hui’s Mihingarangi Forbes for Newshub and the Whakatau 2020 debates hosted by David Jones for Māori Television.

Not only do I have a vested interest in assessing the candidates for the Māori electorate seats, with particular interest in Tāmaki Makaurau, I also appreciate the format. Mihingarangi published a set of ground rules for her debates on The Spinoff, and they capture the inherent differences. All of the rules offer an insight into how differently we roll in te ao Māori, but number one is the most important: “We are whanaunga first, last and always. Basic whaikōrero rules apply: the kaupapa gets robustly discussed but never at the expense of the whanaungatanga.”

It’s a curious thing that Māori activists are often labelled as “anti-free speech” – I wonder if people who hold that view have ever been in a hui or to a marae. Our cultural norms of engagement (call it tikanga if you want) are literally built around how to have robust conversations. We just prefer not to put people’s lives at risk with our free speech.

With that in mind, I’m certain Mihingarangi and her team will have been challenged about their decision to include controversial candidates like Billy Te Kahika and Hannah Tamaki. If the format was the mainstream debate structure, I would agree because they’re about catching people out, getting answers to questions about the price of milk or some other “everyday person” trope.

But if you watched the debates hosted by Mihingarangi you will have seen something unexpected; by treating Te Kahika and Tamaki as serious adults, Mihingarangi neutered their frightening potential for chaos and forced them to act as if they were going to have to do the job they’re applying for. This exposed them utterly, without needing to resort to being disrespectful or, worse, underestimating them and by doing so failing to hold them to account for their values and politics.

A couple of the candidates were seriously underprepared in these debates for the Māori electorate seats. In any other setting this would have been a bloodbath, but the other panellists were kind and the hosts patient, because the objective was rigorous discussion, not belittling one another for the sake of it. Interestingly, the people who looked bad in this situation were the parties who hadn’t put the necessary support around their candidates before putting them up for a big television debate.

The other thing The Hui debates in particular did well, was to talk directly to whānau. I know the other debates looked like they did that, by bringing in people to ask questions on various issues, but the reporters for The Hui actually went into the community and asked whānau what worried them. The reporters were all from the electorates they were reporting from, were trusted by the whānau they spoke to, who gave actual answers, offering revealing insights into the reality of many people’s lives in our country. The most moving moment was when one reporter was so overcome by the plight of a tane Māori who was homeless, that she put down the mic, took him into Te Puni Kōkiri herself and advocated for him directly. If you didn’t watch it, you might be reading this thinking that sounds like a nice little staged moment but if you go back to the debate for Te Tai Tokerau, about five minutes in, you’ll see it was sincere.

Mostly I loved these debates because we saw Māori MPs and aspiring Māori MPs arguing about and advocating for solutions to entrenched issues that will require real courage and consensus to address. Nobody struggled to name racism at these debates. There was justified outrage, passion, hope and aspiration, all from an authentic Māori perspective.

But, in all their mana and beauty, the limitation of their position was so obvious. Labour MPs kept referring to Jacinda Ardern leading them; I know our people love her and she’s a ferociously impactful name-drop but every time they did that, to me it just sounded like they weren’t going to be the ones making the decisions.

Māori candidates from other parties and movements showed how they were putting all their energy and aroha for our people into their debate preparation and thoughtful policies but always present was the spectre of where the ‘real debates,’ the ‘real decisions’ were being made, and it wasn’t in that forum, and decisions unlikely to be made by us.

Take the referendums, for example. I am grateful for our privilege to vote in free and fair elections but I loathe government by referendum. The flag referendums in 2015 and 2016 were a pox on all our houses. I still can’t look at a red triangle without wincing.

Cannabis law reform and assisted dying are great examples of issues that should never have been put to referendum. It’s one of the few victories of 2020 that abortion law reform dodged the opportunity to be decided by referendum. This is despite the self-proclaimed “handbrake” to the Labour-led coalition and strong referendum proponents, New Zealand First, pushing for it.

By deferring contentious issues to referendums we effectively silence any minority who might be adversely impacted by the decision. This is because, during a referendum, we delegate the advocacy for those groups to a system of government and public institutions that have delivered us the inequities that we experience today. We can’t pretend that the election and referendums are taking place in a vacuum and our particular vacuum is inequitable for anyone who is not Pākehā, able-bodied, with an urban postcode, and wealthy. The failure of these referendums is seen starkly in the feedback from Māori in the last few weeks as media and community groups hold debates and open forums for discussion. The most common response is “We need more information, more opportunity for conversation.” To have that feedback one week out from election day, is an utter failure of government and shows precisely who makes the final decisions in New Zealand and who they make them for.

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