16 May 2017

Labour's Māori MPs say they're not being stifled

9:31 pm on 16 May 2017

How strong are the voices of the Māori MPs within the Labour caucus?

The controversy surrounding Labour's list process and debate over Māori prisons and charter schools have led to a great deal of focus on the Māori MPs, and how well Māori politics meshes with a party also seeking broader appeal.

In what was perhaps a sign the party wanted to emphasise the standing of its Māori MPs, they featured first in the list of the 2017 caucus team in the party's congress booklet - a position normally taken by the leader, the deputy and ranked MPs.

Labour's Māori MPs featured first in the list of the 2017 caucus team in the party's congress booklet.

Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

All of its Māori electorate seat MPs have opted to go off the list, prompting criticism the list is notable for the absence of Māori in the higher ranks.

And discussion about Māori offending and education have thrown up the conflicts that can occur between MPs advocating for Māori and for Labour's broader constituency.

A senior figure in Labour's Māori caucus, Kelvin Davis, last week floated an idea to establish a prison based on Māori values, to help reduce reoffending rates

That was effectively shot down by party leader Andrew Little, who said while it was an idea worth exploring, it was not party policy.

Mr Davis said that response was fair enough and Mr Little was just being "straight-up honest".

"That it isn't Labour policy, but it is on the table and it's our role to put things out there in the public domain and have a discussion around it."

It was one thing in opposition to "bang on" and be critical of the government, he said.

"But we do have to come out with the alternative, with solutions for the country."

'Hairy issues'

The MP for Tamaki Makaurau, Peeni Henare, said Māori MPs were comfortable with their place within the caucus and their ability to express their views.

There were always "hairy issues" that came up, he said, but the caucus worked together to reach a collective decision.

Debate around what Labour would do with charter schools, including the one linked to list candidate Willie Jackson, blew up last week.

Mr Henare said representing a Māori constituency, as well as being a Labour MP, meant sometimes those two things bumped up against each other.

"You know my support for those Māori educational outcomes, whether it be through charter schools, I'm a big supporter of that.

"And I often wonder if we're going to cherry-pick the good things from charter schools and get rid of the bad ones, I wonder if such a review's done on state schools - get rid of the bad ones and keep the good ones - those are questions my constituents ask."

Louisa Wall is a Māori MP but holds the general electorate seat of Manurewa.

She said there was room for open debate in the party and Māori MPs had the same opportunities to progress as any other member of the caucus.

But she acknowledged having the Māori seat MPs opting off the list meant Māori were not well represented at the top of the party list.

"On the face of it, we haven't provided for Māori because there isn't a Māori in the top 15 - that's a reality.

"Our rationale and justification for that has to be seen in the actions of our six incumbent MPs, because they are confident in their abilities to retain their seats but also because they did want to create the space for other Māori to join the Labour caucus."

Ms Wall said, regardless, Labour could end with up Māori MPs making up to a third of its caucus after the election.

Not having senior MPs on the list, but instead having very promising candidates in winnable places, was something for the party to keep in mind next time, she said.

Mr Little said any criticisms his Māori MPs did not have an equal voice in caucus were unfounded.

He said all of the party's MPs fought to have their ideas put forward.

"For a leader, it's a balance of being able to say, OK, we've got to find a way to process that idea and get the best out of it.

"On the other, we've got to demonstrate to the public at large - this is a party that is organised, has got itself together and can make good decisions and is disciplined in doing so."