A New Working-Class, pro-Maori Political Voice

Aotearoa/New Zealand:

A New Working-Class, pro-Maori Political Voice

MANA: (noun) prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma.

Mike Treen is national director of the Unite Union in Aotearoa/New Zealand and a member of the newly formed Mana Party. Socialist Aotearoa’s Joe Carolan interviewed him on the significance of the foundation of this new left-wing party.

Joe Carolan (JC): Mike, can you tell us a little about the formation and programme of the new Mana Party?

Mike Treen (MT): The formation of the Mana Party is a major step forward for a genuine working-class political voice in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Hone Harawira speaks at the Mana Party launch.

The founding conference was held on April 29 with more than 500 people answering the call issued only a couple of weeks
before by Hone Harawira, the elected MP for Te Tai Tokerau – a Maori electorate
that covers the top third of the North Island, starting in the north and west of Auckland.

Hone Harawira had been elected as a representative of the Maori Party in 2005. At the Mana Party conference he announced he was resigning his seat in parliament and standing again in the resulting by-election to seek a new mandate as leader of a new movement in New Zealand politics.

Anti Neoliberal

Some extracts from a letter by Hone Harawira to a trade unionist just prior to the conference gives some flavour to the sort of program the party will develop in the coming months.

“The party and I will be pro-worker. I am fortunate
having several trade unionists taking leadership roles up to assist the new
party and who have offered to contribute to its policy.

  • Mana will be anti neoliberal, against monopoly capitalism and against privatisation of the people’s assets. Utilities such as water, power, roads etc. should be in the hands of the people rather than a guaranteed money making venture for corporations
  • Our strategy on taxes will be targeted at wealth such as capital gains taxes, death duties, and asset taxes. We will want to abolish GST with sometime like a financial transaction tax (we’d like to call it the Hone Heke Tax). The rich need to pay their fair share.
  • We should nationalize monopolies and duopolies.
  • New Zealand needs a planned economy that makes job creation its main emphasis rather than leave it to the non-existent free market.

“Have no doubt we will be a staunch party that puts people – Maori and non-Maori – before the needs of the already rich.”

JC: What other specific pro-working-class policies will Mana campaign for?

MT: In his speech to the conference, Harawira explained that the new party would “put an end to economic policies that drive people into poverty, and then penalize them for being poor.” He continued:

“I want us to put an end to the billion dollar bailout of failed finance companies.

“I want us to recall the $36-million being wasted on that yacht race in San Francisco and spend it instead on emergency heating in
the poorer suburbs of Christchurch that government forgot.

“I want us to put a halt to the sale of New Zealand’s assets because the immediate cash return will never compensate for the loss of
economic opportunity once those assets are gone.

“I want us to guarantee affordable food and shelter for all NZers.

“I want us to take water, power and housing out of the hands of profit-driven corporations and put them back into the hands of the people.

“I want every Kiwi to get a decent day’s wage for a decent day’s work.

“I want us to overturn National [Party]’s 90-day Slave Bill.

“I want us to support the rebuilding of a strong union base to give workers back the rights they’ve lost over the last 20 years.

“I want us to oppose the current tax regime that penalizes the poor and advantages the rich.

“And I want us to launch the HONE HEKE TAX where every dollar spent is taxed at just 1%, which means poor people don’t pay much
because they don’t have much to spend, and rich people pay more because they spend a lot more.

“The HONE HEKE TAX will mean we can chop down the GST on essential services, immediately reducing the cost of food, electricity,
petrol and housing, and enabling ordinary Kiwis to start rebuilding their lives.

“But most importantly I want us to be a movement to rebuild the MANA of our people.

MANA tamariki, MANA wahine, MANA tangata, and the MANA of our kaumatua and kuia. The MANA of beneficiaries who are treated like a blight on society. The MANA of workers who have been reduced to near slavery. The MANA of our Pacific cousins who continue to be used as cheap labour and exported home every season, and the MANA of our people, worn down by decades of deceit and dishonest dealings by the Crown, and governments who would reduce us to being no more than another ethnic minority, in our own land.

“And that is our greatest challenge – the restoration of MANA in a way that lifts every heart, and every soul, and challenges us to
accept that only the best will do for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren …

E te iwi – I am grateful and I am humbled by the
support that I have felt from all across the country, and I am grateful to all
those who have offered their help to build a movement that can change this
nation … –

JC: What other forces and leaders are joining Hone in the new party?

MT: On the stage with Hone to express their solidarity and
support were some of the most well-known names from the left, union, Maori
rights and social justice movements. They included Annette Sykes (Ngati Pikiao,
lawyer and activist), Matt McCarten (general secretary of Unite Union), John
Minto (leader of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and spokesperson for
Global Peace and Justice Auckland), Sue Bradford (unemployed workers rights
leader in the 1980s and 1990s and former Green Party MP), Syd Keepa (Maori vice-president of the Council of Trade Unions), Nandor Tanczos (former Green
MP), Margaret Mutu (Ngati Kahu’s chief negotiator, the chairperson of Te Runanga-a-Iwi o Ngati Kahu and the professor of Maori Studies at Auckland
University). Most groups that describe themselves as socialist, such as Socialist Aotearoa, the Workers Party, Socialist Worker and the International
Socialist Organization, have also generally greeted the emergence of this new party positively.

JC: What are the intersections between the struggles of Maori and the working-class in New Zealand?

MT: The Mana Party emerged from the long struggle by Maori
to protect their social, political and economic rights in this country. This
includes their right to separate representation in parliament. This struggle began as a resistance to colonial rule and the expropriation of their land last
century, which was accompanied by the imposition of second-class status and attempted destruction of their language and culture. The process was intertwined
with the growth of a capitalist economy and the super-exploitation of Maori workers, who were denied equal pay and access to the minimal welfare services
that existed. From the very first, Maori have also been part of working-class resistance to this exploitation. The first recorded strike was by Maori in the
Bay of Islands because they wanted to be paid “for their labour in money as was the case in England, or else in gunpowder,” according to Bert Roth, labour historian.

Maori formed an alliance with the early Labour Party
in the 1920s that kept the Maori seats in Labour’s hands almost uninterruptedly
since that time. The struggle for equal rights for Maori has been intertwined
with the trade union movement as well. Maori became overwhelmingly working-class people and formed the backbone of many union struggles. The union movement in
turn supported important Maori struggles like that of Ngati Whatua in Auckland for the return of their land in the mid-1970s. A “green ban” on a development
site by unions helped block the sale of land to private developers and win its eventual return to Ngati Whatua. The retreat of the labour movement and union
struggles over the last two decades has seen a weakening of that bond. But Maori struggles have continued and it is not surprising that Maori are taking
the lead in a broader working-class political break with the pro-capitalist policies that have seen so much damage done to working people.

JC: Have there been other parties that have tried to represent this struggle before?

MT: Following the destructive economic and social policies
of the 1984-90 Labour government Maori and the broader left tried to establish an independent voice in parliament. The New Labour Party was founded and then
the Alliance through a coalition of New Labour, the Greens and Mana Motuhake. Mana Motuhake leaders Sandra lee and Willie Jackson were elected to parliament
as Alliance candidates. But Labour lost control of the Maori seats in the 1996 election to the NZ First Party, which had a Maori leader but conservative
populist policies.

When NZ First went into coalition with the National Party and supported its anti-working-class policies Labour was able to regain
control in the 1999 election. The Alliance Party was destroyed following the 1999 election when the party went into coalition government with Labour and
then split over the sending of troops to Afghanistan. The majority of the Alliance MPs abandoned any pretence of principle to preserve their comfortable
position in the government and the ministerial responsibilities, salaries and privileges that went with it.

Mana Motuhake’s two MPs were on opposite sides of the debate. Neither Alliance or Mana Motuhake were able to survive the debilitating
split except as shadows of their former selves. The Alliance went from 10 seats with 8% of the vote in 1999 to none and only 1.3% in 2002. The former Alliance
leader Jim Anderton retained his constituency seat and remained for a period as leader of the Progressive Party before finally being completely absorbed by the Labour Party last year.

One by-product of the Alliance implosion was the emergence of a militant new union organizing drive by the Unite Union. Some of
the leaders of the Alliance left, including the former Alliance Party president Matt McCarten, decided that one lesson that needed to be drawn from the Alliance debacle was that, for the left to be taken seriously, it needed to be
able to prove in practice that it was relevant to the real needs and concerns of working people.

JC: Do you think the Unite Union has helped to bring forces of the new left together?

MT: Although I have a natural bias in this regard, I think it is a fact that Unite has demonstrated a unique ability to combine creative
and effective organizing of workers in the most difficult to organize industries, with a campaigning style that means it is able to play an important
political role articulating working-class concerns.

One example of this was the very effective campaign to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which combines industrial organizing and
action, public protests and a mass petition drive that got 200,000 signatures.
Unite has grown to 8000 financial members and won collective agreements in the previously deunionized areas like fast food, call centres, hotels and security.
In the process some of the best activists on the left – at least those who took
working-class politics seriously – have been able to work together in ways that
hadn’t been possible before in the factional soup that had been radical left
politics. Unite leaders like Matt McCarten have also had an orientation toward forming a genuinely left working-class political movement when the time was
right that was able to learn the lessons of the failed Alliance experience, including the need to combine parliamentary politics and the struggle on the streets.

JC: What were the origins of the Maori Party, and what led to Hone’s split with it?

MT: The 1999-2005 Labour-led government again betrayed Maori by dropping any pretence of honouring its promise to “close the gaps” in
New Zealand society and legislating to overturn a legal decision that opened up
the possibility that Maori could win recognition of their ancestral rights to
the foreshore and seabed. This decision led to a massive mobilization of Maori and subsequent split by a Maori government minister Tariana Turia to form the
Maori Party in 2004. She won a subsequent by-election for her seat and then the
Maori Party won four of the seven Maori seats in the 2005 general election and five of the seven in the 2008 election.

The Maori Party was seen as a unified voice for all Maori. Very soon it was faced with the reality of the growth of class
differentiation within Maori over recent decades. The Maori Party was quickly
faced with the choice of representing the majority of Maori, who remain
severely disadvantaged in all areas of life, or the aspirations of an openly
pro-capitalist layer who have taken advantage of the doors that were forced open by earlier generations of struggle against discrimination.

When I first went to university in the early 1970s there were almost no Maori professionals, let alone outright capitalist owners.
There has been a major increase in opportunities for young Maori to become
doctors, lawyers, academics, accountants, real estate agents and the like. This went alongside a conscious attempt by both Labour Party and National Party governments
to incorporate these layers into a new pro-capitalist elite within traditional Maori society.

Settlement of Treaty of Waitangi claims that involved some very modest compensation to Maori tribes for past dispossession was
delivered in a way that imposed a corporate structure on Maori and encouraged
the development of a privileged elite willing to ape the self-seeking upper class in the broader capitalist society. Urban Maori were also largely excluded
from the process, with resources primarily funnelled to traditional rural tribal authorities rather than pan-Maori structures that had formed in some major cities.

While the 1980s and 1990s saw doors for some Maori being pushed open, most Maori were the victims of an economic and social
depression as a result of the ruling class offensive against workers’ rights
and living standards. Official Maori unemployment hit more than 25% in the early 1990s. Whole working-class communities in the main centres, as well as
many small towns, across the country were destroyed in this period. Poverty and
unemployment became endemic and even the decade-long period of economic expansion starting in the mid-1990s failed to bring unemployment back much
below 10% for Maori and is now back to more than 15%. The official unemployment rates for Maori were usually about two and a half times that of the whole community.

The corrosive political results of this process were reflected in the capture of the Maori Party leadership by the newly elected
National Party government after the 2009 election. In this process there was an
active involvement of a self-appointed “Iwi Leaders Group,” which came from the
tribally controlled business arms that became the body the Maori Party
consulted for “advice.” Official Maori Party policy was ditched in favour of
largely cosmetic changes that posed no challenge to wealth and privilege. This
process is described in a wonderful speech called “The Politics of the Brown Table” by Annette Sykes, who is one of the driving forces behind the new Mana Party.

Annette Sykes is a Maori lawyer from the solid working-class mill town of Kawerau on the central North Island. She has been a leader in
advocating for her community over the last few decades and is currently a
defence lawyer for the activists charged with arms offences after frame-up
terror raids in October 2007. She has never joined a political party before.

The split in the Maori Party came into the open when
Hone tried to discuss the wisdom of forming a coalition with the National Party.
A column in the Sunday Star Times in January questioned “having to put
up with all the anti-worker, anti-beneficiary and anti-environment (and
therefore anti-Maori) legislation that comes as a natural consequence of having
a right-wing government” (see “Crunch time for Maori grumbles Hone Harawira”).

This provoked a furious reaction from the Maori Party leadership, which moved to at first silence and when that failed to expel Hone
from the Maori Party. The mass media and most liberal left bloggers dismissed
beforehand any possibility of Hone being able to form a new party that could unite the left. The launch of the Mana Party and the decision to force a by-election has also had a huge media impact. Again the mass media editorials and some liberal
bloggers have been warning us that Hone’s uncompromising and militant approach will fail. Labour Party leader Phil Goff declared the Mana Party wouldn’t be welcome in the (unlikely) event he was to lead a government.

JC: The growing political polarization in New Zealand has also seen movement on the hard right?

MT: Coincidentally former National Party leader Don Brash launched a takeover bid for the right-wing Act Party that succeeded the same weekend as the Mana Party founding. We had the extraordinary sight of someone who was not even a member of Act demanding and getting the leadership of the
party. The former Act leader, Rodney Hide, was told he wasn’t even wanted as a candidate at the next election.

Brash had similarly been parachuted into the leadership of the National Party by a group of big business backers prior to the
2005 election. He ran an election campaign appealing to racist sentiments and came within a few percentage votes of winning. He subsequently resigned as
leader and from parliament after a book was published based on his leaked emails that exposed the hypocrisy, double dealing and outright lies told during the election.

Don Brash is again trying to use the race card and is campaigning against Maori having “more rights” than other New Zealanders, in
favour of abolishing the separate Maori seats in parliament, ending legal recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, eliminating any special funding targeting Maori inequality and for “one law for all.” Both new party leaders
were on a special television debate watched by hundreds of thousands where Hone challenged Brash and his anti-working-class and racist policies.

JC: Can the Mana Party become a strong new left wing force in Aotearoa?

MT: An online poll in the NZ Herald of 30,000 readers had 8% saying they would vote for the Mana Party. What was interesting
about the poll was that the 8% stayed steady all day and there was no online
campaign among Mana Party supporters to go and vote. If only half that level of
support shows up in the national election the new movement will have five or six MPs.

The formation of the Mana Party is an exciting opportunity to change in the character of political life in this country. For
the first time a political leader is talking about the reality of life for the big majority who are struggling to cope with being able to provide proper food,
shelter and health care for their families. For the first time someone is talking about inequality being an issue that needs to be challenged. For the
first time someone is talking about the working-class and its role in transforming society. For the first time someone is talking about nationalizing industries vital to peoples welfare and the need for the economy to be subject to an economic plan determined by the needs of the majority. For the
first time in decades a serious left political movement is rising from the heartland of the working-class.

The challenge is for those on the left who recognize the need for a radical movement to challenge and ultimately overthrow this system of oppression and exploitation is to recognize the new reality and step up to the plate without preconditions. •

This interview was first published on the LINKS website.

Mike Treen is national director of the Unite Union in Aotearoa/New Zealand and a member of the newly formed Mana Party.