Politics: The Maori party’s hard choices

When the Maori party won four seats in the 2005 election its president, Whata Winiata, said the Treaty partner had come to Parliament. In 2008, with five seats, it partnered with National in government. Its problem: those partnerships are unequal.
Its annual general meeting in late October will reflect that. Far from aspiring to seven seats on November 26, it will be defending the four it has left.
This turnaround reflects the brutal majority-rules truth about Maori influence on politics since 1860: hard choices, which have always divided them. Resist or withdraw to preserve what can be kept intact and separate. Or do what deals can be done. Or meld into the majority. All three tendencies will run in the election.
Hone Harawira will trumpet the first tendency. He and Annette Sykes assert Maori sovereignty at least the equal of the dominant power.
For example, they insist the foreshore still belongs to iwi. It was never lawfully alienated. Labour’s 2004 legislation was confiscation. Harawira and Sykes split last year’s AGM on this point. Next month their Mana party will fight the Maori party in the Maori electorates.
Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia agree National’s replacement foreshore legislation, which they supported after trying for more, is half-step. But they have adopted the long-sighted pragmatism practised by the most respected iwi leaders: to take what they can get, bank it and come back another time.
That has been the line most Maori MPs have taken since the Young Maori party century ago. Labour’s Maori MPs are mostly of this tendency. They went through hell in 2004 but stuck with Labour – only just in Nanaia Mahuta’s case. Only Turia split.
The third tendency is represented in Parliament by the likes of National’s Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges, Aaron Gilmore and Paul Quinn: mainstream members of mainstream party, their Maoriness secondary hereditary or cultural factor.
All three tendencies are at large in the electorate. third of Maori choose not to be on the Maori electorate rolls. National’s John Carter used to ascribe to Maori voters most of his Northland general electorate majority.
Of Maori who go on the Maori rolls, most take the middle course. Social and economic issues are at least as important as indigenous rights issues and, in the crunch, mostly more important.
So how does this play out in the election?
At the purist end, Harawira should hold his seat and Mana might get more if the hard-left likes of Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten can siphon party votes off Labour as the Alliance once did.
Most Maori at the mainstream end will vote National. This will be indistinguishable from the general National vote.
In the pragmatic middle the Maori party and Labour will fight it out. Labour is unlikely to lose either of its two Maori seats, even though Parekura Horomia is past his use-by date. It might pick up Te Tai Tonga if Mana takes enough votes off Rahui Katene to let Rino Tirikatene through.
That leaves the Maori party with four seats at most and possibly fewer and two co-leaders now in the retirement zone. It will have to continue attending both to iwi leaders, most of whom lean National, and rank and file voters who, as between Labour and National, are more logically Labour.
That is fiendish balancing act, especially when locked to National, as John Key wants it to be again next term. The party will be expected to extract big concessions but also distance itself on much else, in order to fend off Mana and Labour.
Ideally, Maori party would command all Maori seats – likely to be eight in 2014 – and king-make Labour and National governments in turn. Three years ago, that was conceivable. Now it looks pipe dream. November 26 and the three-way divisions could make political management nightmare. M

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist. [email protected]

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