How radical is Willie Jackson?
By Richard Harman (author)
It’s now almost exactly two years since Andrew Little walked out of the Waitangi Hotel and introduced Labour’s newest candidate to what would turn out o be a startled media and even more startled Labour Party.
Little produced Willie Jackson; one time Alliance MP and talkback host who had widely been rumoured to be becoming a Maori party candidate.
The reaction from Labour’s women was immediate.
Over 400 party members, including a former president, Maryanne Street, signed a letter opposing the move.
One MP, Poto Williams was also particularly outspoken.
Jackson’s crime was to have been half off a raucous blokey Radio Live talk show with the infamous former Labour Minister, John Tamihere. (he of the “front bums” quote about lesbians.)
But Jackson’s candidacy represented more than just a red neck sounding bloke ending up on the Labour ticket.
For a start he rejecting that description of himself pointing out that his mother, June Jackson, is a legendary figure in Auckland Maori politics and a highly regarded Maori women leader.
But anyway, with a typical Jackson brush-off for his critics, he says it was all Tamihere’s fault in the first place.
(Like many of Tamihere’s close friends he consistently calls him “JT”.)
“it was a nice announcement till about an hour later," he recalls to POLITIK.
“I had petitions running against me and everything.
“As I said to JT it was all his fault.
“I told him I got blamed for everything he said.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; that I was anti-gay and I was meeting with some of our rainbow people, and I said I marched for homosexual law reform.
“They said ‘did you’!
“I said yes; it was the other fulla!
"I suppose when you are talkback hosts everyone thinks you agree with each other, but the beauty of John and I was that we didn't agree on bugger all."
And it is with the same cheerful unconcern that he deals with Winston Peters.
As the Minister of Employment Jackson has made it clear his goal is to get the so-called “neets”; those neither in employment, education or training, into work. A large proportion are Maori.
His experience among detribalised urban Maori youth, particularly his work with the Manukau Urban Maori Authority has given him a close-up view of the challenge.
But he has begun in the regions – in places like the East Coast and Northland which he says the previous government neglected. Thus he has already spent $13 million to get Shane Jones’ proverbial “nephs” off the couch.
His big creation is "mana in Mahi".
“It was a funny thing because the original name was working for the dole.
"And I sat there with the officials, and I said, no, no, no – that ain’t gonna work.
“It doesn’t matter that we are paying them the dole.
“Nobody wants to be saying that they're working for the dole.
“They came up with a few dopey names but mana in mahi works.
“The only thing was that Winston said he wanted some English words.
“So I said well it’s strength in work, so he goes, ok.
“That’s all good; that’s our coalition working well.
“It doesn’t worry me that Winston wants a few Pakeha words; all good by me.
“Whatever does the job.”
And that could almost be Jackson’s personal mission statement.
For someone who has played such a big role in Maori politics and who is co-chair of the Maori caucus, Jackson is surprisingly relaxed about hot Maori sovereignty issues.
He believes that what really matters to Maori voters are the core issues --- and he thinks that Labour's universal strategy to address issues like housing, health and employment is part (but not all) of the answer.
He believes that this was the mistake the Maori Party made; that they focussed on issues like whanau ora rather than the core issues of economic deprivation.
“Yeah, that was their mistake.
“Not that those issues are not important.
“You know, Hone Harawira and I got into a big stoush over the foreshore and seabed, and I was clear that Maori were more concerned about the core issues like housing health and education rather than foreshore and seabed.
“ Well, he went off his rocker.
“I didn't mean that foreshore and seabed wasn’t important.
“Of course that's important.
“But get real.
“So him and I have barely talked since then.
“He can go jump in the lake.
“OK. so he went a bit overboard, and he made his choice but I'm allowed to have, and that's what I ran a campaign on. “
But there are issues which Jackson and Labour's other Maori MPs will have a different perspective on than their Pakeha colleagues.
The most immediate will be David Parker’s attempts to draw up a National Environmental statement on water.
Jackson was a member of the Maori Council when they brought a Waitangi Tribunal claim seeking water rights when National undertook the partial privatisation of the power generating companies in 2012.
The tribunal adjourned the case (where it remains) but not before saying that Maori had rights over water “akin to proprietorship”.
"I thought that was reasonable; that our interests in terms of water have to be respected, and I don't think it was an extreme view at all.
“I thought it was a view New Zealanders would be able to resonate with and from my observations from the Korero I’ve had with David (Parker) he is not far off there.
“But those are my views on it and the views of the Maori caucus, but we have to be careful with those sorts of issues because I know I am not representing a Maori Party anymore.
“I was the leader of Manu Motuhake, but now I'm part of a mainstream big party, and we are in government, and obviously you have to be a little bit careful otherwise you won't be there for too long.
“So I myself have had to look at some of my views and think can I be a little. bit more flexible.”
He says his attitude to Te Reo Maori is another example.
“The constant view of making it compulsory just puts people off.
“But if you can get results through another strategy and you can get everybody talking the language, well who cares what you call it.”
Despite Jackson’s constant emphasis on how Maori issues are mainstream issues, there is still a suspicion that the Maori Caucus inside Labour has the potential to go its own independent way.
Jackson, on the other hand, still wants more from the government.
However, he says the relationship between the Maori caucus and the government works "pretty well"; particularly now that the Caucus has been allocated, three staff.
“It's a very respectful relationship.
“It's also in my view in the past it was a relationship that was taken for granted.
“That's why you saw the splits and whatnot.
“But it's a relationship that is very valued by the Prime Minister
“But you know it's easy to get lost within a big machine and so.
“So the challenge for us, for rainbows for Pacifica, for women, is always to say hey we have certain rights.
“We want those rights acknowledged, and I found that there is a culture here. “
But for Jackson, the crux of the relationship is that Maori drag in nearly every statistical area.
And here he sees a limit to universalism.
“Universalism can't be the only answer because of course, the numbers are dragging all the time.
“So, therefore, what are our people doing at the coalface there. is really good.
“We hear Maori nurses doing a great job.
“But they're going to the United Nations because they believe they've been discriminated against.
“ So we need to be in a government that addresses that. “
Jackson says issues like this; about the importance of Maori health providers have been very clearly signalled to the main caucus and particularly Grant Robertson.
“Of course we've all got budget bids, and there'll be ministerialn, and then there'll be Maori caucus negotiation that myself and the moderator and Kevin Davis will be part of it.
“We'll say well what are the benefits going to be for Maori.”
He still keeps in touch with the Manukau urban marae. He tries to go there every Friday and just before Christmas he was astounded to see how many people were lining up for food parcels.
"It's just so sad; they were lining up from three o'clock on the morning.
“It's heartbreaking some of the stories.
“But I’m really humbled that our “people get in and support these people.
“So I am seeing it first hand.
“You know I have carried that for years and years so now coming down to Wellington I feel I have got an obligation to try and get as much resourcing and support back into those areas.”
And this is what sustains Jackson and gives him a confidence that he is on the right track and that even Labour women are starting to understand what he is really about.
And there is one woman, in particular, he wants to keep onside.
"In the end, I value the relationship with the boss – is she something else!”