The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 236-239
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Polynesia in Review: Issues and Events, 1 July 1999 to 30 June 2000
In 1996 Maori deserted the Labour party and gave all the Maori seats to the Maori-led New Zealand First party. In 1999 they returned them all to Labour thus ensuring a Labour-led government. The basic error New Zealand First made was to enter a coalition with the National party against the clearly expressed wishes of Maori. Now that Maori are starting to become a political force in Aotearoa/ New Zealand, governments are having to learn quickly to shed the deeply ingrained habit of ignoring and dismissing issues. With the gap between Maori and non-Maori widening for every socioeconomic indicator, Maori looked to Labour to restore some semblance of justice. On election night in November 1999 new Prime Minister Helen Clark thanked Maori for returning all the Maori electorates to Labour. Maori then waited to see what Labour would return to Maori.
The first indication that the prime minister was serious about Maori issues came with the appointment of three associate ministers to assist the minister of Maori Affairs. It soon became obvious however that the minister, Dover Samuels, was a political liability. First he gave the prime minister bad advice on how to conduct Waitangi Day. Then he was embroiled in an employment dispute with his press secretary. When he became prey to what were eventually unproved allegations of sexual impropriety from the right-wing act party in June 2000, the prime minister removed his warrant. Soon after, several convictions for violence and theft came to light that Samuels had not declared to the Labour party. Having watched the minister of Maori Affairs in the previous government spending more time fending off right-wing attacks than doing his job, Maori were not unsympathetic to the prime minister's decision. Dover Samuels was replaced by first-term member Parekura Horomia, a career bureaucrat with a strong preference for maintaining a low public profile.
The prime minister had indicated her lack of confidence in Dover Samuels long before she removed his warrant. In January she set up the Cabinet Committee on Closing the Gaps (between Maori and non-Maori) and decided to chair it herself. Samuels admitted that he was unable to make headway with many heads of government departments and that they were less likely to disregard the prime minister. One of the first decisions of the cabinet committee was to give the Ministry for Maori Development greater powers to conduct accountability audits on all government agencies. Negative reactions from the opposition benches indicated that the ministry is almost certainly going to continue having difficulty accessing information from other government agencies that resent having to account for what they are, or more likely, are not doing for Maori.
The usual opposition tactic for ensuring that Maori needs are not addressed is to keep up personal attacks on Maori members of the House. After the 1999 election the main target was John Tamihere, the flamboyant member for the new Hauraki electorate. Helen Clark had backed his selection as the Labour candidate for the seat, rejecting the Maori selection. Prior to the election [End Page 236] Tamihere had been the chief executive officer of an urban Maori corporation, the Waipereira Trust, which operates from West Auckland.
The right-wing opposition party ACT, using information fed to it by disgruntled Maori in West Auckland, forced an inquiry into the Trust's use of public funds. Tamihere's inexperience in the House showed in the early stages of the inquiry as he named and attacked members of the Waipereira Trust, whom he accused of leaking information to act. Their vehement denials forced Tamihere to apologize. Although the Trust was cleared of specific allegations, act continued to needle Tamihere about its operations and his own conduct.
Given parliament's and the media's recent history of attacking Maori members personally, it is not surprising that the fourteen other Maori who entered or were returned to parliament in November have maintained a low profile in both the House...