OPINION: So the politicians have made their annual pilgrimage to Ratana and shown off their wares. Where the Maori vote will end at this year's election, however, is hard to tell. The river is full of conflicting currents.
Prime Minister John Key made a strong case that Maori fortunes had improved under National, but this is not a popular argument. Not even the Maori Party can make it safely. As Dr Pita Sharples told a reporter, the party is now trying to put some distance between it and National. Dr Sharples, who freely admits that he is a good friend of Mr Key's, knows that the link with National is slowly killing his party.
The only question now is: how many seats will the Maori Party lose this year? The party has lost the main reason for its being, which was the repeal Labour's foreshore and seabed legislation. It has not really found another central cause to replace it. It is losing its two most distinguished politicians, Dr Sharples and Tariana Turia. And it has suffered the slow suffocation that all small parties suffer when they get into bed with a larger one.
The Ratana link is not what it once was. Maori voters are no longer as loyal as in the past, when for 50 years till 1993 they returned nothing but Ratana-Labour candidates. Maori voters have been hard to woo since then. It seems astonishing, now, that Winston Peters brought the Maori seats into his fold for a term in the 1990s. Now, Maori allegiances are split between Labour, the Maori Party and Mana.
This fragmentation has been a good thing. It has shown Labour that it cannot take the Maori seats for granted. It has perhaps persuaded Labour to take more notice of Maori interests. And the fact is that there is no such thing as a single or uniform Maori vote. Maori have always had varied interests and varied political allegiances.
As the Maori middle class grows, it will produce more National supporters. At present, National's share of the Maori vote remains small, of course, but it will rise, just as the Black Republican vote in the United States has increased. And already we have seen a notable rise in the number of National Maori MPs in the general seats - a trend which might have been encouraged by the link between National and the Maori Party.
It is MMP, however, which has had the most dramatic effect on Maori representation in parliament. The share of MPs of Maori descent in the house is now greater than the proportion of Maori in the wider population. This increase is wholly good, because it means the Maori voice is better heard in the national marae. Some argue that we no longer need the Maori seats as a result, and indeed the Royal Commission which recommended MMP also believed the Maori seats would not be needed.
This may indeed be true, but it may be better to put off abolition until a majority of Maori approve it. The goodwill between the two cultures is now in a healthy state, after all, and there is no particular need to pick a fight over this. National MPs have seen for themselves, moreover, that their party can work well with the Maori. That is also a genuine achievement.
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