Maori Party pays high price for power

16:00, Mar 22 2013

Before Pita Sharples gets too smitten with the notion of being the Maori Party's leader for life he should think back to others who have felt similarly entitled over the years. They invariably come to a sticky end.

The problem is the Maori Party constitution, which – crafted during a period of huge idealism and belief that its arrival heralded a new way of doing politics – never anticipated the prospect of an old-fashioned, blood on the floor, leadership challenge.

The usual way of course would be to work the caucus corridors, do the numbers and roll Dr Sharples at the earliest opportunity. Like the Australian Labor Party, the Maori Party is discovering that is not as easy as it sounds.

The other two members of the Maori Party's caucus of three have done the numbers and presented Dr Sharples with the inescapable truth that he no longer has the support of co-leader Tariana Turia and Te Ururoa Flavell.

There was even a hui called to do the business and officially roll him. Ominously for Dr Sharples, the numbers against him there were almost as compelling as around the caucus table.

But Dr Sharples, in his typically genial fashion, has decided to box on regardless and anoint himself the party's "forever" leader – his own word – or, at the very least, leader until he is dead.


Understandably that has flummoxed everyone and for a brief period the party flirted with a new model that anointed the entire caucus co-leaders.

As a model, it would have the blessing of every backbencher in Parliament but as Prime Minister John Key pointed out, it is hardly practical. In National's case, it would mean 59 co-leaders.

But Mr Key's joking aside, the Maori Party's succession problems are as much National's problem as the Maori Party's.

Its likely dependency on the Maori Party is laid bare whenever another big poll rolls around. Short of UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne capturing the public imagination again, National's best option for governing again after 2014 is the Maori Party.

But within that reality lies the reason for the Maori Party's declining relevancy to Maori voters. In coalition with National the wins have been few, and the bitter pills that have had to be swallowed are many.

In one of those classic chicken and egg dilemmas, the less relevant the minor party becomes, the less imperative there is on National to allow it more room.

The upshot is that the Maori Party has failed to stamp much of an identity at all on the coalition. The safety valve that allows it to vote against National has been a double-edged sword. It allows both parties to maintain a solid working relationship. But it also means neither side has had to work very hard at it. Rather than try to carve out a compromise, they mostly agree to disagree.

Whanau Ora, the only policy win the minor party can credibly hold up as a yardstick of success in its coalition with National, is just a shadow of what Mrs Turia expected. Aware of the pitfalls of allowing spending on pet social programmes to grow like topsy – remember hip-hop tours? – National has been careful not to let it put down roots too deeply.

More tellingly, National has also stopped worrying overly much about ruffling the Maori Party's feathers.

The lazy way in which National sprang the controversial appointment of Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner on the party was evidence of that.

Her dismissal of Waitangi Day "shenanigans" and her coded criticism of Treaty settlements were always going to be inflammatory. But Mr Flavell could only protest weakly from the sidelines.

That highlights the party's real dilemma. Mrs Turia accuses Dr Sharples of being a turnoff to younger voters. But the ultimate turnoff among the younger firebrands who helped propel them into power has been the party's last four years in coalition.

Like the Labour MPs who preceded them in the Maori seats, the Maori Party has discovered that being part of the establishment has its advantages – a ministerial budget (not to mention the cars, the house, the big salary and the extra perks). It also means having a voice of influence around the Cabinet table.

However, it does not come without a cost. The Maori Party package was about idealism. That long ago disappeared under the weight of political realities like compromise, failure and half measures.

In short, the Maori Party's MPs are now indistinguishable from Labour's Maori MPs in that they offer the same deal; a voice inside the tent, rather than outside. It may be an important voice, but it is also one that can easily be drowned out by others who claim to be speaking for the majority.

It is not just Dr Sharples who is looking vulnerable in Tamaki Makaurau. The party's three remaining seats are looking increasingly wobbly, given Mrs Turia's decision to retire at the next election. Beneath the attempt to install Mr Flavell as co-leader – the real prize being Dr Sharples' Maori Affairs portfolio – is a last roll of the dice at saving his Waiariki seat at least.

So it will be a fight to the death in the Maori seats.

Labour, which needed to be shaken out of its complacency in the Maori seats, selected some good candidates at the last election and won back Te Tai Tonga.

The reality of MMP is it won't make much difference to their overall share of seats in Parliament. But the reverse is not also true. If the Maori Party holds on to its existing three seats and snatches a couple more, it could make the difference between a Labour government and a National one.

On a pure numbers game, Labour's best outcome would be Hone Harawira's Mana Party picking up the Maori Party's seats. Mr Harawira, who quit the Maori Party in protest at its arrangement with National, is already positioning himself as the third part of a Labour-Greens government.

The Greens will also campaign in the Maori seats – though only for the party vote – because they see themselves picking up a big chunk of young Maori voters turned off by both Mana and Maori.

Ironically, the one party that has most riding on the outcome, National, will be the least visible in those seats. But how it chooses to play the relationship with the Maori Party between now and the election could still prove the decider

The Dominion Post