OPINION: Departing Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples is not the cause of his party's political predicament; nor is his likely replacement, Te Ururoa Flavell, the answer to it.
The Maori Party has contracted a severe case of compromise-itis. It has got too close to its governing partner. It is the same ailment that did for the Alliance, almost did for NZ First on two occasions, and has put both ACT and UnitedFuture on life support.
Since New Zealand switched from first-past-the-post to the MMP electoral system in 1996, a variety of small parties have taken turns propping up Labour or National-led governments.
All have influenced decision-making, all can lay claim to knocking some of the harsher edges off their partners' policies, or in the case of ACT sharpening them, but none has been rewarded for their efforts. Instead their successes have been lost in the machinery of law-making and it is their failures which are remembered.
For the Maori Party, the experience must be particularly galling. The party made good on its promise to overturn the previous government's foreshore and seabed legislation, secured funding for its pioneering Whanau Ora scheme and, against the expectations of many, established itself as a serious player in the Beehive.
However, the inevitable tradeoffs required to advance its agenda have cost it its identity. The party that grew out of protest against the abrogation of Maori legal rights has become, in the eyes of its former supporters, the lapdog of its Right-wing allies.
The characterisation is unfair. Dr Sharples and his fellow co-leader, Tariana Turia, have used the bargaining chips dealt them by electors to achieve what they can for their supporters. There is a limit to what can be done with three votes in a 121-seat Parliament. But in politics perception is everything. And the perception is that the Maori Party has lost sight of its origins.
With Labour on one side and former Maori Party firebrand Hone Harawira's Mana Party on the other, it is hard to see how the party can possibly re-establish its credentials.
The 71-year-old Dr Sharples' announcement yesterday that he is standing down as party co-leader and will not contest the next election is welcome on a few fronts.
First, it represents belated recognition that no-one is indispensable. He had previously vowed to "lead until I'm dead". Second, it will preserve his considerable mana from further attack. And third, it will end the unsightly squabbling between him and his colleagues over who should lead the party into the next election. However, it does not alter the party's fundamental problem.
It is a spent force that has been overtaken by events. Mr Flavell may live to fight another day and so may whoever succeeds Mrs Turia, as the party's candidate in her Te Tai Hauauru stronghold, but the tide has turned against the Maori Party.
It is just another example of what happens to small parties that are sucked into the major parties' slipstreams.
- © Fairfax NZ News