It’s well known that the self is political, but it rings no truer than in an election year. When identity is a talking point during question time, and your way of life is another tally mark for the opposition, it’s hard to see yourself represented. It’s even harder when you’re Māori and a woman.
Currently, there are 120 MPs in the house. Of this active cohort, at least twenty identify as Māori, and only eight are wāhine. The number of takatāpui sits even lower at a minuscule four. Despite this being the largest cohort of Māori women MPs, at 9.6%, it barely scratches double digits in representation.
From the outside, Aotearoa New Zealand, appears to have an enviable track record of gender equity in the political arena. In 1893, we were the first country to give women the vote, and in 1999, we became the first to elect an openly transgender person to Parliament, Georgina Beyer.
However, while we continue to boast egalitarian ideals on the world stage, national media coverage tells a very different, damning story.
Little scholarly attention has been paid to the media representation of tangata whenua, tāne, wāhine mai. What is known, however, is that Māori take on extra pressures, compared to their Pākehā counterparts, when they enter Parliament. Straddling a unique position, Māori politicians are not only supposed to hold responsibility to their whanau and electorate but are also expected to be the spokesperson for all things Māori.
These expectations only increase for wāhine Māori, sitting at the intersection of kaitiaki, political Boudicca, and colonial oppression.
This was particularly salient during the first half of the year. Wāhine Māori and their media coverage had been pointedly challenging this political term. At the beginning of the year, Elizabeth Kerekere, formerly of the Greens, was embroiled in bullying rumours. Meka Whaitiri jumped to Te Pāti Māori’s waka in May, and most recently, in July, Labour’s Kiri Tapu Allan resigned after careless motor vehicle use came to light.
While scrutiny is expected of all politicians, especially ministers, some face it more than others.
Compare this to the coverage of men across the country. Invercargill mayor Nobby Clark has had particularly empathetic reporting despite causing a massive racial divide with his endorsement of anti-co-governance tours.
Lest we forget John Key and his ponytail-pulling parade, while it garnered worldwide attention and disapproval, memes-filled timelines and an air of humour underpinned the event. It was essentially chalked up to light-hearted banter and ‘horseplay,’ a privilege very few wāhine have been afforded.
After Allan’s tumultuous department from Parliament, many members started questioning the Beehive’s culture. Te Pāti Māori co-leaders have adamantly expressed their feelings towards Parliament, calling it an inherently misogynistic place, perpetuating colonial harm against Māori.
The media’s role as a cruel tool in reinforcing these norms should be noted, primarily upon wāhine. Studies show that men especially dislike Māori women MPs, Pākehā men.
This results from a few things: the absence of Māori journalists in prominent spaces and the overall lack of cultural awareness by Pākehā journalists. Until Maori perspectives tell Māori stories, issues of Māori importance will continue to be framed from a white perspective.
It’s a long way to equitable representation in the media, but initiatives like the Public Interest Journalism Fund help bridge the gap. Intended to help media entities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fund assisted a range of new journalism efforts. Many of these projects focused on increasing the number of community journalists, training cadets, and funding Pasifika and Māori journalism.
Despite its contested history in Parliament, it has undoubtedly positively impacted te puna kōrero. It’s brought on promising young journalists and has helped question the traditional practices of media outlets.
Officials and citizens need to reevaluate the systems of Parliament and the media. We need to consider how systems were established and how that suits our society currently. What is evident is more support is required, not just for wāhine Māori but also for MPs of immigrant backgrounds, members at the crossroads of intersectionality and our politicians who struggle with immense mental loads. A little aroha would go a long way.