Labour's Māori MPs could be the biggest losers in any Winston Peters government

Last updated 10:26 07/10/2017

Tamati Coffey's win in the Waiariki seat signed the Māori Party's death certificate.

Māori voters swung in behind Labour's Jacinda Ardern and Kelvin Davis, but is the party in the kaupapa Māori wilderness after years in opposition?
Could Lance O'Sullivan be just what the Māori Party needs to find its way back to Parliament?
Māori Party co-leaders Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell lost their way back to Parliament after Labour's Tamati Coffey won the Waiariki seat.
Dame Tariana Turia has come out of retirement to get the Māori Party back on its feet.

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OPINION: Winston Peters feels like he's between the devil and the deep blue sea, and he's not the only one.

Labour's Māori MPs are facing their own lose-lose situation, oddly brought about by a clean sweep of the Māori seats.

The seven MPs holding those seats could be the biggest losers whichever way NZ First chooses to go once the special votes are counted.

Labour is on a high after bringing 13 Māori MPs into its caucus, and Tamati Coffey's win over Te Ururoa Flavell in the Waiariki seat single-handedly ended the Māori Party's political lifeline.

* Who killed the Māori Party?
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But if Labour can't get a coalition deal across the line with Winston Peters and the Greens, it's staring down the barrel of another three years in opposition and by 2020 that will be 12 years of saying not enough has been done while at the same time having done nothing itself. 

On the other hand, being in government means you actually have to deliver, and as the Māori Party learned the hard way, that's not so easy.

It's true that the Māori Party's biggest mistake was being seen to be tied to the National Party – it was impossible for it to distance itself from that during the campaign and Labour jumped on every opportunity to remind Māori that a vote for the Māori Party was a vote for National.

The strategy worked for Labour and, with the help of a new and energised leader in the form of Jacinda Ardern and the party's first Māori deputy, Kelvin Davis, Māori voters swung in behind the new leadership and rewarded Labour with all seven seats.

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But keeping hold of those seats is the tricky part and while Labour won the support, it's been out of power for so long it's lost in the kaupapa Māori wilderness.

With Māori over-represented in every negative statistic, all the expectation in the world now rests on those Māori MPs' shoulders.

But what can they actually achieve in opposition? Frankly, very little, as the last nine years show.

The alternative, of course, is that being in opposition means there's all care and no responsibility as nobody actually expects opposition MPs to be able to achieve anything.

Māori MPs in government are accountable, as Marama Fox and Flavell discovered when Labour ran a campaign line that blamed every poor Māori statistic on them.

While two people are hardly responsible for all the decisions made by Cabinet, it's an easy argument to run that when Māori are poorer, living on the street, not in school or training and over-represented in prison, the Māori Party being at the table has been a waste of time.

The Māori Party was born out of a unique set of circumstances, though. When Dame Tariana Turia crossed the floor over the foreshore and seabed legislation and formed the party, Māori were incredibly disillusioned with Labour.

Not only was there a divisive issue that saw protests and hikoi like never before, but on the other side there was also Don Brash riling Māori up with his shouts of separatism – it was a perfect storm for the Māori Party to be established and both Turia and Pita Sharples were charismatic and respected enough to get it off the ground.

The Māori Party is in the throes of planning its comeback and there's two roads for its 2020 campaign – the seven Māori MPs have sat in opposition for more than a decade, or they've been in government and not enough has been done to deliver for Māori.

But will that be enough? No longer being in Parliament throws all sorts of resourcing issues at the party – in short, it has no money.

No money and no resources makes travelling the country and selling a message incredibly difficult. There's no free air travel, there's no public funding for staff, there's nothing but a reliance on a really strong volunteer support base.

But you need more than the same faces and the hoardings and slogans of years gone past to inspire volunteers to come out in force.

Turia has come out of retirement to get the party back on its feet. In a recent interview, she spoke of National having done well by Māori in government and that the issues Māori face have been around much longer than the nine years the party's been in government.

While that's true, the statistics for Māori have also got much worse in the last decade.

Turia also knows the Māori Party membership wanted the party to go with Labour – they wanted a change of government. Turia has history with Labour and is unlikely to ever forgive the party, and that's the motivation behind her support for National.

How Turia's comments that National has done well by Māori will sit with those affiliated with the party is yet to be seen, but it's clear Turia is not the answer to the party's leadership problem – she's the past and the party needs a future.

The average age of Māori is 24 and, as Fox put it, "our future is still coming".

Speculation is rife that renowned Kaitaia doctor and New Zealander of the Year Lance O'Sullivan is on the verge of stepping up to take over the party's reins.

O'Sullivan appeals to both Māori and non-Māori but the trick will be mastering – in the same way NZ First has – the role of looking like a kingmaker.

The messaging from the Māori Party during the election campaign was mixed at best and incoherent at worst.

Its co-leaders, Flavell and Fox, were singing from different song sheets for most of this year – Flavell happy to stay working with National, while Fox pushed the desire for a Labour-Greens-NZ First government.

For many Māori the threat of another three years of the Māori Party being part of a National-led government was too much to stomach.

Unsure whether the Māori Party would actually work with Labour, they threw their support behind Ardern and Davis.

The Māori Party has one shot at getting back to Parliament – if it doesn't pull it off in 2020, then chances are the party will be permanently relegated to the history books.

Positioning itself as a king- or queen-maker party will be crucial to its survival and that will require a strong and coherent message under a new leader – even better, one with crossover appeal.

It will be an uphill climb for the Māori Party and how it tackles the next three years will be dictated by the decision Peters is yet to make.

The man who quite fancies the Māori seats being abolished for good could decide more than just which party has the right to govern.

- Stuff


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