OPINION: So Hone Harawira, Tariana Turia and Winston Peters walked into a bar.
What's the punchline? Only that there is about as much likelihood of the three of them bar crawling together as there is of any single party ever being able to credibly claim to speak for all Maori.
Carried into Parliament on a wave of emotion over the-then Labour government's foreshore and seabed legislation, it is possible to see why - alone among the three leaders - Mrs Turia still believes in a party that does.
That was, after all, less than a decade ago. But even so, she increasingly looks stuck in the past.
In a speech to Parliament this week, Mrs Turia referred to a statement 157 years ago that it was the solemn duty of all Europeans to "smooth down the dying pillow of the Maori race".
She likened it to predictions of the death of the Maori Party.
But the death of the Maori Party hardly means the death of Maori representation, even if the Maori Party and Mrs Turia would prefer to frame the debate that way.
The Maori seats guarantee that. Nor does it mean the death of Maori political power. If not the Maori Party, then someone else. In 1996, for instance, it was the Peters-led NZ First which made a clean sweep of the Maori seats.
Predictions of the death of the Maori Party may yet prove premature. But if it is to survive, it will have to make some painful choices. Labour was taught a painful lesson that no-one holds a mortgage over the Maori vote. So too may the Maori Party.
When the Maori Party arrived in Parliament, some held to the notion that it would serve as the de facto Treaty partner. But the real power within Maoridom lies with the iwi leaders.
And they have forged a business-like relationship with National. When they want to rub shoulders with senior Government ministers these days, they don't need the Maori Party to open doors.
That the Maori Party looks increasingly marginalised will be underscored at Waitangi Day events next week, when the iwi leaders flesh out a constitutional review - spearheaded by Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu - which they launched to run parallel to the Government's own constitutional review.
The Government's review, headed by a star-studded panel that includes Sir Michael Cullen and some big names in Maoridom, was instigated under the coalition deal with the Maori Party.
The iwi-led review is likely to take a robust position on the role of the Treaty in a post-Treaty settlement world. The Government-led review is likely to be tame by comparison.
But that is the one the Maori Party will have to champion. After four years of allegiance to the National Government, the slow transformation from anti- establishment to the voice of the establishment will be complete.
So when Mr Harawira floated a Mana-Maori alliance at Ratana last week he was extending the Maori Party more than an olive branch - he was offering them a potential lifeline.
The prospect of a Mana-Maori alliance might have stuck in Mrs Turia's craw. It might even have come with the usual element of stirring by Mr Harawira. But it was a far bigger gesture for him to make than it was for Mrs Turia to accept.
She has never forgiven Labour for its treatment of her after their well publicised split over the foreshore and seabed. That Mr Harawira can forgive and forget after his equally bitter split from the Maori Party suggests there are depths to his character that many Kiwis probably don't give him credit for.
The brutal reality for the Maori Party is that it needs Mr Harawira as much as he needs them. The Maori Party might look like it has the stronger hand, with its three electorate seats to Mana's one. But the tide is all but out on the Turia- led party.
Mrs Turia and co-leader Pita Sharples are hopelessly at odds, and Mrs Turia has publicly called for Dr Sharples to stand aside in favour of the younger Te Ururoa Flavell. In doing so, she has probably knee-capped Dr Sharples in his Tamaki Makaurau seat, which already looked vulnerable to Labour's Shane Jones.
MRS Turia is far too politically astute not to know that. But she is also astute enough to know it is do-or- die time for the Maori Party. With her retirement at the next election, the Maori Party could be delivered its last rites.
In 2011, after three years of governing with National, the party slid backwards, losing Te Tai Tonga MP Rahui Katene to a swing back to Labour. If that was the start of a shift in direction of the pendulum, then Dr Sharples and Mr Flavell could be next.
No matter who the Maori Party selects to contest Mrs Turia's Te Tai Hauauru seat, meanwhile, they will have huge shoes to fill - perhaps impossibly so.
The big difference now compared to eight years ago, when the Maori Party was launched, is that it has to campaign on a record of four years in Government.
That puts it in the same position as Labour's beleaguered Maori MPs in 2005, when they had to defend themselves against a new Maori Party.
Troublingly for the Maori Party today, the voice of protest that most resonated with many of the young supporters it attracted then was Mr Harawira's - against whom it must now defend itself.
Even if the water rights issue explodes back onto the scene - and there is a chance it may (many in the Government quietly fear the Supreme Court will take an activist stance on the issue) it is likely to be Mr Harawira those young supporters flock back to.
But the one-time maverick has also been careful not to paint himself into a corner as a one constituency Maori party - his pitch is to the dispossessed and the have-nots.
He is playing a long- term game to build allegiances with the Greens and Labour. And he is building bridges in other ways. His officials are talking to ACT and UnitedFuture, for instance, about backing Mr Harawira's "food in schools" bill, which is due to be debated in Parliament later this month.
In that context, Mrs Turia's manoeuvring against Dr Sharples is a huge risk, and not just because Mr Flavell, a relative unknown, lacks the name recognition of Dr Sharples.
All it might succeed in doing is splitting the vote in the Maori seats - a result which would benefit Labour the most.
Labour has already sniffed the prospect and is looking to woo back disaffected Maori voters on two fronts - policy and candidates. Leader David Shearer's concerted push at Ratana was the first step.
The next will be moving Mr Jones back to the front bench, which will boost his chances in Tamaki Makaurau, and also showcase Labour's best Maori performer.
But Mr Shearer is hostage to the timing of an auditor-general's report into Mr Jones' handling of an immigration matter while he was a minister in the Clark government.
And unless handled sensitively, the likely demotion of Tainui MP Nanaia Mahuta could just as easily work against him.
If Mana and Maori come to some form of electoral accommodation, it gets harder for Labour. Which is why Mrs Turia and the Maori Party should think twice before rejecting Mr Harawira's olive branch out of hand.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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