On 25th January the country will again see an event that has come to mark the start of New Zealand’s political year – the commemoration of the birthday of Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.
Ratana was a prophet, a healer and a politician, and those three strands all permeate the church and the movement he founded back in 1925 that can still boast 51,000 members at a time when 46% of Maori and 47% of Pakeha told the 2013 census they have no church affiliation.
That’s less than 10% of the numbers who claim membership of any mainstream church, so why do politicians and media give this event so much attention?
In part it’s because politicians and church see mutual benefit in getting together as each can be a drawcard to attract people the other wants to reach out to. The media are there because it’s a political event and they cling to the myth that what happens at Ratana will determine the way large numbers of Maori vote at the next election. That was true 70 years ago when there were four Maori seats firmly occupied by staunch Labour-Ratana members with huge majorities who often had Cabinet ranking, but the advent of MMP and two more Maori electorates changed all that, technology gave voters new ways to find out about politics and Ratana’s annual hui no longer has the pivotal significance it once had, although it still has pride of place as the first political event of the year claiming far more attention than the opening of Parliament two weeks later.
The issues discussed there will be those voters are most concerned about and a preview of what will matter in the coming election, and that’s a good reason why visiting politicians should be doing more listening than talking. Too often they only do a hard sell of what they think will attract votes and as recent polls in Britain, Australia and the US have shown, that’s no longer a safe path to tread. In all three cases a power elite refused to listen to the people, got punished for it, and the voters’ badly informed choices risk making things worse instead of better.
Listen to what the politicians say at Ratana, later in the year compare it with what they say during the campaign and stay clear of those who aren’t addressing what really matters. We need learn from other countries’ mistakes and make wiser choices than they did or we’ll be in similar trouble.