President of Te Pati Maori, John Tamihere, is under scrutiny for large financial donations made to his 2019 Auckland Mayoral campaign. He claims that the charges are 'inherently racist'. But, Bryce Edwards writes, claims of racism can be used to shield those in power.
CONTROVERSIAL MAORI politician and president of Te Pati Maori, John Tamihere, is in hot water over large financial donations relating to his 2019 Auckland Mayoral campaign and Te Pati Maori’s 2020 election campaign. For him and his supporters, the allegations are “inherently racist”. For others, they illustrate that there are a lot of vested interests and wealth in te ao Maori, and this influence has the potential to have a strong impact on government decisions.
IS TE PATI MAORI A VEHICLE FOR VESTED INTERESTS?
Contrary to the myth that Te Pati Maori only pursue the interests of working class or poor Maori, the party has historically often represented the interests of Maori middle class and business. In fact, this was why MP Hone Harawira split so spectacularly from the party in 2011 to set up his more working class orientated Mana Party. He complained that Te Pati Maori had become dominated by the elite forces of te ao Maori. The two parties have now reunited, but the underlying tension that caused the split remains.
Similarly, there is a myth that, unlike other political parties, Te Pati Maori doesn’t have access to wealthy backers. But records show that for many years the party, and its current president John Tamihere, have received large donations from wealthy individuals and organisations to use for campaigning.
Some of these large donations have been in the spotlight recently, and questions raised about their legitimacy. The latest is an investigation by Herald journalist Matt Nippert into donations given to Te Pati Maori and Tamihere by two charitable organisations that Tamihere himself controls.
THE HERALD'S ALLEGATIONS ABOUT TAMIHERE'S CHARITIES
Matt Nippert’s story, published on the front page of the Herald this week, highlighted that charitable organisations are given tax-free status which saves them huge amounts of money, but this privilege is given on the basis that they do not side with political parties or give donations to election campaigns. In the case of Tamihere’s organisations, this rule appears to have been broken.
Here’s the opening paragraph from Nippert’s report: “Charities connected to Te Pati Maori president John Tamihere are under investigation after financial reports showed nearly $500,000 in charitable funds had been used to bankroll his mayoral and general election campaigns.”
Tamihere was advanced $82,695 from the National Urban Maori Authority (NUMA) and $385,307 from Te Whanau o Waipareira Trust Group. Tamihere is the chief executive of both organisations, which endorsed his campaigns for office in 2019 and 2020.
Nippert’s article quotes Natasha Weight, the general manager of Charities Services, the agency that regulates tax-free charities, saying the rules are very clear: “a charity must not support or oppose a political party or candidate. This includes making a donation to a political party or a candidate’s election campaign, endorsing a party or candidate, or allowing a party or candidate to use a charity’s resources”.
As political finance researcher Max Rashbrooke wrote this week, “this looks terrible for Tamihere and the Trust. How can a registered charity be lending (and in effect donating, since it’s interest-free) their money to a political candidate? That’s not a ‘charitable’ purpose!”
The University of Auckland’s Peter Davis, a long-time Labour Party activist, also commented this week on Tamihere and Te Whanau o Waipareira: “He has always run the trust as a bit of a personal fiefdom and this has not been transparent until now. It was possible to forgive the early likely and anecdotal transgressions because the Trust was doing necessary work, but this crosses a line that no longer earns such sympathy.”
According to Nippert, Charities Services has issued a formal warning to Te Whanau o Waipareira, and is now engaged in negotiations over how to proceed with the alleged breach of the law. Te Whanau o Waipareira could be de-registered and Nippert says it could lose its lucrative tax-free status, which he calculates could cost it $16m.
Tamihere’s charities – which are clearly partisan – also contract to the Government to provide Whanau Ora services. When the donations first came to light last year, political commentator Shane Te Pou called for the minister of Whanau Ora to bring in the Auditor-General to investigate.
Nippert has also raised a discrepancy in the amounts that have been provided to Tamihere and Te Pati Maori: “Tamihere declined to explain the difference between the sum recorded in accounts as being advanced by the charities for his political campaigns ($468,002), and the figure recorded as donations from them and him for the mayoral and general elections ($387,604).”
RACISM ALLEGATIONS AND DEFENCE
Tamihere and Te Whanau O Waipareira have reacted strongly to the Herald news story, accusing the newspaper of racism. Tamihere called it an example of the media demonising Maori, labelling it “a hit on the Maori”.
Talking about Nippert’s story, Tamihere says “This is a pogrom”, and likens the experience to that of the Jews facing persecution. And he says that Te Pati Maori will no longer work with or write for the Herald, which raises important issues for media freedom and holding politicians to account.
In announcing the boycott, Tamihere states: “I will never write another word to try and educate ignorant pakeha about Maori matters for the New Zealand Herald. Nor will any Maori Party member ever be either interviewed or write anything for the New Zealand Herald or ZB radio – let’s leave it for what it is – ‘white man’s radio’, ‘racist radio’, and a racist rag… We will just go on our own platforms. We will talk on iwi radio, because we no longer need white men to define us”.
Tamihere also appealed to pakeha to intervene to curtail the questions being asked, saying Nippert’s story was fake news and a smear: “good Pakeha friends need to know what some of their kinfolk get up to and they just have to stop it and stop them. It’s not for Maori to correct things all the time and defend themselves all the time from malicious framing of us always in a negative way.”
The charity is also now crowdsourcing material from supporters in an attempt to prove that the journalist is racially motivated, using the social media hashtag #dobinaracistlikeMattNippert
The ethnicity element is centrally important to this issue, and is likely to have continued reverberations. For instance, in Parliament it caused one of the biggest political scuffles of the week, with Whanau Ora minister Kelvin Davis reacting to questions about the scandal by accusing Act MP Karen Chhour of having a “vanilla lens” and needing to get acquainted with the Maori world.
Davis’ comments were made in response to the following question in Parliament: “So does the Minister agree with John Tamihere when he says his charity and Oranga Tamariki are in a partnership and not a contract, and if Te Whanau o Waipareira is struck off the Charities Register, will the Minister guarantee that this partnership will end?”
PAST ISSUES WITH THE TE PATI MAORI AND VESTED INTERESTS
Matt Nippert’s revelations of the donations aren’t entirely new. His story is important because they highlight the investigations of Charities Services into the partisan activities of the two trusts.
Last year the Electoral Commission announced it was concerned about a breach of electoral law by Te Pati Maori because they failed to declare the donations from the two charities during the election – as well as another $120,000 donation from the mysterious Aotearoa Te Kahu Limited Partnership.The Electoral Commission made a complaint to the Police, and then the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigated. This week we learned that the SFO have closed their investigation and decided not to prosecute. The agency won’t provide further details of what they learned about the breach and why they’ve made their decision, simply stating: “The SFO has closed this matter and will not be taking any further steps”.
What is unknown is whether knowledge of the donations would have changed voters’ opinions of the party at the 2020 election. Te Pati Maori kept the details secret, and then got back into Parliament when Rawiri Waititi captured the Waiariki electorate, beating Labour incumbent Tamati Coffey by 836 votes.
VESTED INTERESTS OPERATE IN ALL ETHNICITIES
Te Pati Maori and John Tamihere have been entirely dismissive of any questions about their financial backers and whether they are following the rules meant to make politics more transparent. This suggests they don’t take issues of corruption and vested interests seriously.
Although the party has only two MPs, there is a strong chance that Te Pati Maori will hold the balance of power at the next election. Some in the Labour Party clearly see Te Pati Maori as the Ardern Government’s lifeline to power at the next election should the National Party and Act win more votes than Labour and the Greens combined. Tamihere and his colleagues could have huge leverage over the next government.
When political figures are powerful they need to be held to account, regardless of race. Allegations of racism are extremely powerful, precisely because of the history of appalling discrimination towards Maori in this country. But such allegations should not be used to shield those in power from scrutiny. Te Pati Maori is a product of our democratic political system and, as such, has to be held to account in the same way as other political parties, especially on an issue so important and fundamental as the funding of political campaigns. Double standards can’t be accepted by anyone wanting clean and fair politics – especially those of us worried about vested interests looking for ways to leverage their political donations.
Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project. This article was first published by Democracy Project.