OPINION: A day after John Key used his Parliament kick-off speech to cast himself as a Prime Minister in charge, the tone changed abruptly when National and Maori Party MPs hustled the foreshore and seabed replacement bill back from Parliament's Maori affairs select committee. That looks more like panic than poise.
The report on the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill replacing the Foreshore and Seabed Act is a parliamentary collectors' item.
Usually a committee report contains fully drafted amendments. Occasionally a committee reports it cannot reach agreement and the House as a whole sorts it. Occasionally a committee issues an interim report for one of a variety of reasons.
Last Wednesday's report was novel. It (a) recommended the bill "proceed without amendment" but (b) appended 49 pages of suggestions for amendments, leaving the drafting to Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson. Legal advice on the crunch clause was denied committee MPs. They did not debate the proposed amendments, and discussion of a 500-page departmental report, issued late, was derisory. Dissenting parties had only a sliver of time to write minority reports.
Labour, the Greens and ACT labelled this an abuse of parliamentary process. It reprises pre- MMP habits when committees were ministers' submissive servants.
Yet again, the Government - pale shades of the dark days of Sir Robert Muldoon - has discarded constitutional niceties, this time for expedition. Not a good look for Finlayson who, as Attorney- General, is the Cabinet's guardian of constitutional propriety but who, in this case, says the public has been widely consulted and the parties' differences on principle are known.
Driving this divisive measure through on a bare majority is dubious practical politics too. It seriously risks leaving the issue unsettled.
National hopes the reverse - that once the bill is law, what it thinks are overwrought emotions will cool. Crash landing the report 16 days before the due date maximises time for that to happen and thus to remove the foreshore as a potential election hot point. Many National supporters bother about iwi power and many iwi leaders and Maori party members think it falls far short.
That is where Hone Harawira comes in - or goes out. Some of Harawira's rhetoric echoes former Maori Party president Whata Winiata's 2005 dictum that the "Treaty [of Waitangi] partner has come to Parliament". This referred to the Appeal Court's invention in 1987 of a partnership between the Crown and Maori, which Winiata took to be an equal partnership, in accord with tino rangatiratanga, thus casting his party as a symbol of a parallel politics.
But, in fact, the party is a junior partner in its support of National. That is the reality of majoritarian representative democracy.
Some of Harawira's rhetoric reflects a simple view of electorate- based democracy: that representing his electorate is what counts. Given that iwi are distinct in rohe, tikanga and rangatiratanga, a Maori party logically would be - and is - more like a grouping than a disciplined Western-style party. But, in modern democracies, there are many more constituencies than geographical ones.
Some of Harawira's rhetoric reflects that of activists and of iwi leaders, including some big ones, who have denounced Finlayson's bill for imposing too tough a test for customary title. Maori Party leaders acknowledge that, but argue pragmatically for taking what they can get now and coming back for more later.
This has generated an irony that has not escaped Labour MP Shane Jones. Four Maori Party MPs, including Tariana Turia, are grittily backing National on a bill they think short-changes the party and iwi; one is a standout. In 2004, Labour Maori MPs grittily accepted party discipline on a bill short-changing Maori; one, Turia, was a standout.
Some of Harawira's rhetoric couches him as super-Maori, an idealist versus realists. That tension pulled apart the Alliance in 2002 and is pulling apart ACT now. Some of Harawira's rhetoric is that of a battler for less-well-off Maori - that is, most voters in the Maori electorates - and (unfairly) casts the leaders as preferring to hobnob with Maori and ministerial elites. To respond well to both, ranking iwi leaders and commoner voters will sorely test the party over time.
Ultimately, Harawira is a misfit. Politics is a numbers game and misfits don't have the numbers.
National sees a parallel with Chris Carter, no longer of media interest since Labour expelled him. Dump Harawira fast and the media will drop him. Likewise, it calculates, with the foreshore bill.
Maybe. More likely not. The Harawiras are seasoned campaigners. Harawira might keep his seat or split the vote and let Labour back in. That will hold media interest till the election.
The same might go for the foreshore bill. It might turn out to have been more dignified - and in- charge - to play by the constitutional book.
- The Press