Opinion: So I had the privilege of sitting in on a discussion with Dave Letele (aka Brown Buttabean) and John Tamihere (Whānau Ora and Te Pāti Māori) about Dave maybe running for Parliament this year. Spoiler alert: I have no idea if this will happen or if either even wants it to happen. The point of this comment is the content of the discussion. Dave and John had no input into this column at all. I think there are important general lessons from the discussion for voters.

Here we are clearly entering the election silly season where most participants or potential participants are preparing, preening and nitpicking on how to seek advantage. The difference here was that such issues were totally absent. This was two social activists with strong causes talking about whether and how those causes were best advanced. No polls, no focus groups, no donor obligations to be seen. Simply what was best for the cause they live and work for.

Obviously John has taken a view that his social objectives for Māori and through Māori for all are best served by active political involvement. I have to say he was not pressing this view on Dave in our discussion, but sharing his deep experience. It is very relevant that he and many other Māori activists have taken the view that the established main parties do not sufficiently advance the cause of Māori.

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Dave’s story is pretty well known. From very difficult situations he has developed a social activist and service group (BBM) which directly involves thousands, and online tens of thousands more. He is a very effective media advocate and practical service provider through BBM on equity for Māori, Pacific peoples and working class families. Very little of this has had government support. As he points out, most of the money comes from well-off Pākehā who support the practicality, speed and cost effectiveness of BBM in getting service where it is needed without bureaucracy, delay and waste.

Many people have urged him to stand for local or central government positions. This is not his natural habitat. When he does enter situations such as corporate or government meetings he takes his whole self, his working clothes and his unabashed background and passion for those he serves. He mostly ignores convention. But he is pretty damn hard to ignore when he is in the room and on fire. (Hint: this may be part of why those who are more comfortable in their positions and change-phobic don’t rush to fund him.) But, as the BBM slogan goes, “What we do works”. You can only get away with saying that if it does.

So people might be interested, as I was, in the questions Dave has about a political campaign:

  • Will it help the people I am committed to serve more than not getting involved?
  • Will it cut across the current and planned activities of the strong and growing BBM team?
  • Can my involvement help shift the focus of politics to equity for Māori and Pacific people and devolution of power to our communities?
  • Can I use this to draw even more attention than I do now to how tough real life is in those communities and how little the privileged and the public agencies supposed to help really understand that reality?
  • Can I and my family handle this involvement?

Dave is getting plenty of advice, most of it self-serving, about what he should do. He is a pretty good listener but mostly he listens to the people he serves: those who do not get heard nearly enough by those in power. He does not have to do outreach or election meetings to do this because he lives and works in, with, and for these people. He responds to their messages and they know they are heard.

I do want to credit John here. He shared the frustrations, the pain, and the occasional satisfactions of both activism and politics very openly. It’s not at all hard, listening to him, even for an old and privileged Pākehā to see why Māori respond to the devolution to and mana motuhake amongst their own organisations. I think Te Pāti Māori will grow as a political force from this real base, and not because of some arithmetic electoral balance of power they may or may not attain.

It all felt very real, and very divorced from what passes for election campaign and candidate selection in the mainstream. Those discussions seem very trivial in comparison.

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