From its very formation the Maori Party has boxed above its
weight on domestic policy, but when it comes to foreign policy the
party's MPs have never found their mojo.
Their latest unfortunate dalliance with foreign affairs came when co-leader Tariana Turia told Q+A that her offsider Dr Pita Sharples was considering leading a Maori delegation to Fiji to negotiate with Commodore Frank Bainimarama. She argued that Bainimarama is misunderstood and that New Zealand needs to learn more about what's going on there. If that line sounds familiar, it is. The Maori Party has used it before - with Robert Mugabe.
Back in 2005, when tens of thousands of black Zimbabweans were being bulldozed out of their homes and starved while the media was being muzzled, the Maori Party suggested that Mugabe was being misreported and that it would be better if Zimbabwe's neighbours worked alongside Mugabe for change. Sharples said because Zimbabwe was working its way out of colonisation, "it's going to take a bit of tough and tumble before they do find the way".
It may have been a well-intentioned stance, but it was ill-informed. Mugabe's descent into dictatorship was not going to be reversed by gentle hand-holding at that stage; he was manipulating everyone, including those offering their hand in friendship. And colonisation is no excuse for mass murder.
The Maori Party doesn't seem to have learnt from its previous fumblings. Despite less-than-subtle advice from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, on Tuesday evening the Maori Party seemed determined to press ahead with their plans to send a delegation, even if Turia and Sharples, as ministers, are unable to go.
The mission is fraught with fishhooks. To walk into a tense political and constitutional debate without pre-conditions, clear goals and significant expertise is to risk being made a fool of and exploited for propaganda. It could undermine whatever pressure the world's sanction-led strategy is applying.
Bainimarama is by no means a Mugabe yet. But to reach out to his regime without making any condemnation of its decision to override the rule of law and censor the media shows poor judgment. Whatever you think about Bainimarama's ends, his means must be criticised without reservation. Given their hard won constitutional review and their loyalty to the Treaty of Waitangi, does the Maori Party really want to give succour to a regime that simply ripped up its own country's constitution when it didn't get its own way?
Party president Whatarangi Winiata has said the Fijians are their "Pacific cousins" and so deserve a hearing, but the delegation is by no means a pan-Polynesian strategy. The Pacific Islands Forum , which has been trying to strike up a constructive conversation with Fiji for several years now, suspended Fiji on Saturday, with chair of the Pacific Islands Forum and Premier of Niue, the Honourable Toke Talagi, saying, "A regime which displays such a total disregard for basic human rights, democracy and freedom has no place in the Pacific Islands Forum".
The Maori Party is also at odds with the United Nations, a body it usually points to as guardians of global human rights. Fact is, the party is on its own, isolated from every body and government that matters. It's left looking hopelessly naïve, even arrogant. What makes them think they can succeed where other Polynesian leaders have failed?
The problem with the Maori Party's approach to foreign policy is that it's a party designed to see every issue through the window of ethnicity. Calling them a single issue party would be unfair; they have heft across a wide range of social policy. But they are blinkered, and foreign policy demands a broad and subtle view.
Their instinct seems to be to side with indigenous people everywhere, and while that will put you alongside the downtrodden in many cases, it won't work everywhere. Zimbabwe is the classic case in point. As the Greens Keith Locke said back in 2005, "the co-leader of the Maori Party should understand that oppression is colour blind."
Q+A - TV ONE, Sunday at 9am and live streaming on tvnz.co.nzCurrent affairs and culture website Pundit