Turia forces party to take stock

One of the most important retirements in recent politics was announced last week - Tariana Turia will not seek re-election in 2014.

It is not the first time the Maori Party co-leader and Te Tai Hauauru MP has signalled her intention to quit - she backtracked on a 2008 announcement that she would call time last year - but there will be no postponement of the inevitable this time.

Whanau comes first.

Mrs Turia's retirement has national implications because now Prime Minister John Key probably has a tougher battle to win a third term.

She will leave her own party in a more stable position than she might have last year, but the Maori Party is a fading force.

Regardless, Mrs Turia showed that during her career she had enough steel to hold her own against a formidable prime minister in Helen Clark.

Miss Clark said Mrs Turia showed "an astonishing lack of perspective" for focusing on a single issue - opposition to Labour's seabed and foreshore legislation - but she read the mood of her people accurately and stood with them.

Sometimes airing provocative views, she also earned respect.

Given Labour's strong, traditional links with Ratana, Mrs Turia's retention of her seat in 2005 with the Maori Party was a noteworthy achievement.

History may record Whanau Ora as the main plank in her legacy, but so far it has been underwhelming in its impact. It is a philosophically coherent set of reforms designed to strengthen the families of individuals needing help, but it has never really enjoyed fulsome support from coalition partner National and there have been implementation problems.

Her larger contribution may well lie in the creation of respect for Maori politics and politicians in that the Maori Party was able to work with a conservative National Party. Labour can no longer take the Maori vote for granted.

When former Rangitikei MP Simon Power was a mover and shaker in the Government, he talked warmly of Mrs Turia. Mr Key has done the same.

Mrs Turia and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples have been influential as National has softened its attitude to Maori.

Their working relationship began while memories of the divisive politics of National's previous leader, Don Brash, would still have been fresh. National has also provoked its ally a few times since.

Through it all, the co-leaders have maintained their dignity, even if they have sometimes been frustrated about lacking enough clout to get their way.

Whoever replaces Mrs Turia as the Maori Party's Te Tai Hauauru candidate will have a huge task to prevent erosion of her vote.

Much of that vote is a personal endorsement of Mrs Turia.

Her 3221-vote majority is a handy buffer, but Labour's party vote in the seat last year was 7645 against the Maori Party's 3829.

One interpretation is that many Maori Party supporters recognised the futility of voting for a party that had no chance of getting near the 5 per cent threshold - and they wanted their votes to count.

Another interpretation is that more than 3800 people with Labour sympathies did not vote for the Labour candidate, Soraya Peke-Mason, and many may well do so next time.

The announcement of Mrs Turia's retirement gives the Maori Party time to find a good candidate, but there will be immense doubt that the party can keep the seat.

National also potentially has a lot to lose if Dr Sharples does not hold his seat.

It is in a tricky situation because its potential coalition partners lack strength. ACT is a writeoff, the Conservative Party is unproven and has the potential to embarrass National, and UnitedFuture's Peter Dunne no longer has the power to pull party votes. NZ First would be a prickly partner and the Green Party is still annoyingly Leftist, though a bit more moderate these days.

National, therefore, is in a much more secure position if the Maori Party can hold most of its ground in the Maori seats.

Te Ururoa Flavell can be relied upon to hold Waiariki, but Dr Sharples has a majority of just 936 votes over Labour's Shane Jones in Tamaki Makaurau.

The Maori Party has been thinking about broadening its appeal and pitching for the party vote, but it will need to be clear about what it now stands for.

As late as October, Mrs Turia talked of the need for the party to get serious about succession planning.

That will now be put to the test.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard"s head of content and a politics junkie.

Manawatu Standard