Mere hours after being elected leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges was subjected to attacks from people on the left questioning “how Māori” he really is and hurling insults like “plastic Māori”. The place where this frustration comes from is understandable; as a member of the National Party, he is complicit in the legislation and policies that have perpetuated the disadvantages Māori face, so when he goes on national television to proclaim pride in his Māori heritage, it smacks of cynical politics rather than genuine pride. Some Māori see his position in National as a betrayal against them, just as the Māori Party’s demise in last year’s election was likely a response to the perceived betrayal by aligning too closely with National. But as understandable as the frustration is, these attacks are misguided and counter-productive.
In our modern world, with many Māori sharing that heritage with that of other cultures and nationalities, there is no one right way to “be” Māori. Generally speaking, to be considered Māori requires being able to articulate one’s whakapapa and choosing to identify as Māori, criteria which Bridges meets. Therefore, questioning his lineage simply shouldn’t happen and if anything, we should actually celebrate a little bit. As some in the media have pointed out, many of our nation’s senior politicians are now Māori, and this is great. Seeing people such as yourself gain such influential positions is heartening for minority groups like Māori who are often led to believe that their chances of such success are not that great. Hopefully, we will see even more Māori in politics in the future. However, as great as all this is, representation based solely on a particular identity has its limits, especially in politics.
Consider Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Many people were excited at the prospect of having at long last a female president, so much so that many didn’t even care who the woman was, as long as she was a woman. In the Democratic Primaries Clinton came up against Bernie Sanders, an old, white male, the epitome of the patriarchy, with whom she struggled with to gain the female vote, particularly that of younger women. Her problem was that while she and Sanders had almost similar policies concerning women’s rights, she represented a sort of corporate feminism, the idea that women too could be the wealthy capitalists in positions of power, and promoted success within the current system rather than trying to change it. In contrast, the intersectionality of Bernie’s policies gave hope for a more equal, democratic future in which the intertwined struggles of race, class and gender and the systems that enforce them would be challenged. So while it would have been great to vote for a woman, many young female Democrats, rightly so, cast their primary votes based on policy that matched their aspirations rather than the candidates’ gender.
On the issue of race, her 2008 Democratic rival could be also be considered a failure of substance. Obama being the first black President was a momentous occasion in US history, but the reality is that he did little to address the issues facing African-Americans. His loyalties were demonstrated early in his first term when he bailed out the financial institutions responsible for the Global Financial Crisis, predatory companies who thrived by preying predominantly on struggling African-Americans and Hispanics and whose actions made life even more difficult for them afterwards. On education, civil rights and foreign policy, nothing he did differed that greatly from his predecessors or opponents, and as Dr Cornel West pointed out, his cheerleaders who were so wrapped up in the idea of having a black president share the blame for excusing his failures. His most significant failure was that in no way did he threaten the power dynamics and structures responsible for the misery of African-Americans across the country. The lesson to be learned is that just because a politician has the same skin colour, background or gender to you, it does not mean that their actions and decisions will be good for you or your demographic.
There has long been a concern in New Zealand politics that personality trumps policy when many people go to the ballot, and to an extent this concern is valid. Our civic participation can and should be better than this, so when we turn a critical glance on Simon Bridges and the National Party, let us move past questioning his Māori credentials and question his policies and what they do for Māori. Let us critique their stance on incarceration, and help them move away from the Western obsession with imprisonment and punitive justice and towards a more compassionate system of rehabilitation. Let us critique their economic policies that continually favour the upper class and corporations with whom their party has close ties to and encourage them to address the socio-economic disparities that heavily disadvantage Māori. Whether it is tino rangatiratanga, land claims, substance and gambling addictions, promoting Te Reo, and educational inequalities, the list of issues Māori want and need addressed goes on. The views they hold and the actions they take on these issues are the metrics against which the National Party and their Māori leaders should be judged.