I’ll say this much for Pania Newton, the leader of the Ihumatao occupation: she’s got nerve.
I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. Perhaps chutzpah, that wonderful Hebrew word meaning brazen audacity or cheek, would be a more appropriate term.
Newton effectively demanded that prime minister Jacinda Ardern drop everything and rush to Mangere to pay homage to her. When Ardern politely declined, an obviously sniffy Newton arranged a protest march on Ardern’s electorate office, just to let her know her priorities were all wrong.
Well, here’s the news: the prime minister of New Zealand is not answerable to Newton or her followers.
Clearly, all the media adulation of the past few weeks had gone to Princess Pania’s imperious head. How dare the prime minister ignore her?
But on this occasion, Ardern was right – right not to go to Ihumatao, and right not to be at her Mt Albert office to meet the protest marchers. She had other commitments to fulfil and was entitled to put them first.
The same was true when she went to Tokelau last month and was unfairly chided by Simon Bridges for being a part-time prime minister. What was Bridges suggesting: that she cancel a long-scheduled visit to a New Zealand dependency – the first by a prime minister in 15 years – just to humour some protesters? That struck me as a very peculiar call for a National Party leader to make, and one that raised questions – not for the first time – about Bridges’ judgment.
As for Newton, she needed to be put in her place. It would have done her no harm to have her massive sense of entitlement punctured.
Besides, Ardern had already made one mistake by arbitrarily announcing a halt to the Ihumatao development when she had no right to. Either she’s had second thoughts or her advisers have convinced her that the government should stay well clear of what is essentially an intra-tribal dispute.
Her public position now is that there’s a reconciliation process underway involving the Tainui iwi and it should be allowed to take its course: Maori negotiating with Maori.
Much as it would suit Newton for the government to intervene on her side, it would be utterly wrong – and a dangerous precedent – for the state to interfere with a deal lawfully done between the developers, Fletchers, and tribal elders. To use a rugby analogy, it would be screwing the scrum.
It spoke volumes that when Ihumatao protest supporters marched on Parliament last month demanding government intervention, Maori MPs acquainted with the history of the dispute stayed away, quietly insisting that it was a matter for the mana whenua – the people with ancestral rights over the land – to sort out themselves.
Sadly but predictably, Green MPs have not been so circumspect. Ihumatao in many respects is the perfect Green Party cause – one where overwrought, undergraduate idealism and overheated rhetoric prevails over considered assessment. So it was no surprise that Marama Davidson, Golriz Ghahraman, Jan Logie and Chloe Swarbrick made sure they were seen virtuously displaying their solidarity with the supposed victims of colonial oppression.
Now I see normally sensible commentators tut-tutting over Ardern’s hands-off approach. Peter Dunne has written an emotional piece for Newsroom in which he presents Ihumatao as the newest addition to a growing list of issues on which the Labour Party has betrayed its supporters’ expectations and crushed their hopes.
Simon Wilson in the New Zealand Herald goes much further, suggesting that this is a defining test of Ardern’s leadership. In an apparent rush of blood to the head he labels Ihumatao as “a disaster” and a “cultural crisis”.
No it’s not, Simon. Get a grip.
He even draws a parallel with the Christchurch mosque massacres, implying that Ardern has the same moral responsibility to front-foot the issue as when 51 people were murdered by a terrorist. But a child can see there’s no equivalence. No one has died at Ihumatao, no one’s life is even threatened, and in fact there’s no reason to suppose that the dispute won’t eventually be satisfactorily resolved.
But that requires people to calm down, take a deep breath and stop indulging in breathless hyperbole (in Wilson’s case) and emotional blackmail (in Newton’s). Then we might get somewhere.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.