It's Saturday morning in the Maori electorate that could well decide the future Government and Mana's Annette Sykes is folding boxes in a small community hall in suburban Rotorua.
Outside the hall is a communal vegetable garden used by Mana members to help feed Rotorua's poor and dispossessed, as many as 100 a time, in what it calls community kai nights.
Inside the hall, in the first of two sessions that day, about a dozen volunteers are meeting to discuss their plan to wrest Waiariki from Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell.
They're motivated by their own experience of poverty, the belief that no other party in Parliament is speaking for them and the feeling that their lives have not improved as a result of the Maori Party's relationship with National and the supposed "rock-star economy".
"I dont know too many bloody rock stars, not in the circle of people I know and that's a pretty big group of people," says Mana volunteer Isabel Morehu.
A few hours later across town, 300 enthusiastic guests, including iwi leaders and New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O'Sullivan, attend a $50-a-head dinner at Te Papaiouru Marae.
There the Maori Party farewells two titans of Maori politics and celebrates 10 years in Parliament along with policy wins such as Whanau Ora, gained through its polarising relationship with the National Government.
The Maori Party is being written off, much to its chagrin, due to a backlash over that relationship and a challenge from the Mana Party, reinvigorated or tainted, depending on your view, by its relationship with Kim Dotcom's Internet Party.
It's those two relationships that form the backdrop of the Maori electorates, along with Labour's bid to win all seven seats.
The Maori Party has struggled to sell its belief that the only way to drive change was to sit at the top table - spurred by Opposition parties painting it as the Government's "lapdog" - and to promote the gains it has made as a result.
Flavell says it allows them to push for policies they do like, to try to prevent those they don't and to influence the Government's thinking on Maori kaupapa (issues).
"To change the framework you still need to be a part of the framework," he said.
"It's the Westminster system for goodness' sake . . . the days are over for some of us of just throwing bricks - there's still a part for that because it keeps you honest and it keeps the social consciousness of the country up there but to change, if you really want change, you've got to be a part of the system."
Rotorua man Taumata Soloman believes the mantra but he's still considering switching to Labour for a change.
"I think people are still trying to live in the old days and what we've got to understand is Maori is only a minority in this world and I think what the Maori Party is trying to do is be that voice for all of us so we can be heard, even if it means that we have to join up with National or whoever . . . but that's our only real chance of having a voice." Others struggle with the idea.
Andrew Auckland, 26, a relative of Mana leader Hone Harawira and a party volunteer, who helps with the community kai nights, believes that in six years the Maori party "haven't really done anything for their people at all at grassroots level."
"Flavell, a few weeks ago, he puts out a statement that the Maori people have received like $3 million and it's like, well my bank account's still empty and we're still living in poverty." Mana was "concentrating on trying to do something," like feeding the needy, Auckland said.
Harawira defected because he didn't want to work with National, before forging an alliance with Dotcom's Internet Party.
That move has provided Mana with attention, funds and impetus - Internet Mana sits at 1.2 per cent in the latest Stuff.co.nz/Iposos poll after being formed in May.
Even Harawira admits he still doesn't know what the end goal is for the Internet Mana alliance and the move has its critics.
Former Mana staffer Marisa Balle said the alliance was a hypocritical move for the movement, which has roundly criticised the Maori Party for doing something similar.
"I just think the perception out there is now they're two-faced," she said. Sykes, whose activist credentials are both impeccable and polarising and who inspires a strong loyalty among the party's supporters, believes it's given them a boost, however and has young voters particularly enthused - helped most recently by the appointment of Mana's youth ambassador, former Warrior Wairangi Koopu.
She says their own polling puts Flavell ahead but that she has clawed her way to within a few points of him, helped by what she describes as a stronger campaign on her part and a widespread desire for a change of government.
"The last six years have been so dreadful for Maori . . . the impact is so well known that everyone wants the National Government out so they're exploring strategic ways to achieve that and there's a recognition that Waiariki is going to be the key to unlocking that answer." She is also focused on drawing out Maori women to vote, saying they had borne the brunt of benefit cuts and the lack of job opportunities.
Although Mana has aligned itself with Dotcom, who says he has given $4m to his Internet Party, and with their combined vehicle Internet Mana currently on a national tour, it remains a grassroots movement.
As well as its bring-a-plate community hall campaign meeting, its stall at Rotorua's Home and Leisure show last weekend was threadbare compared with Labour's two aisles over.
Sykes, almost shyly, handed out computer-printed and hand-folded brochures, supported by three volunteers, though it's clear the party remains somewhat divisive - several passers-by turned their nose up at the offering and one older lady traced her finger across the image of Harawira in a cross, shaking her head.
According to the Maori Party the booth cost $2500, however, a fee Flavell says prevented them attending.
Waiariki voter John Lawson, who was at the show, believes Mana represents the best voice for Maori, though he is also considering a vote for Labour's Rawiri Waititi.
He doesn't believe the Maori Party, which was "turning into a bit of a ghost party," has kept its promises, saying "there's no mana in that is there?".
"They got the Whanau Ora up and running that's great but who's to say that Mana couldn't have done that themselves and any other Maori parties if there ever were, could do that." That perception is one of the Maori Party's biggest challenges and Flavell says they need to address it.
"I think we've made huge gains but the challenge of course is to show our people those gains and promote it. Sure it's never going to be enough, it never has been enough but for three people against the wishes of the bigger party of 59, then we've done pretty well."
Flavell says their preferred method is getting in front of voters, and maintains that when they do so they are able to convince voters of the benefits of sidling up to power.
But the Maori electorates are huge - Te Tai Tonga covers all of the South Island, Wellington, Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands - and Flavell says they need to find other ways to get that message across.
For some voters such as Balle, the major difference is in the messages delivered by the two parties.
She says the Maori Party is more aspirational while Mana is too focused on negative messages about poverty, which Waiariki voters are sick of hearing.
"When I talk to my family or anyone out in the community they're just over hearing how poor Maori are and that's the line that Mana and Annette seem to take. We're not saying that they don't need help but it's just that message is just getting a bit tired," she said.
"People are saying ‘we know we're poor, what are we going to do about it?' Stop throwing stones at the Government and let's just do something. Well who's doing something, well the Maori Party is."
Sykes is unapologetic about that.
"I'm never going to apologise for making poverty the enemy of Maori and I disagree that it's negative. It's about achieving equality and economic justice and that has to be only the most noble of aspirations for anyone who is an advocate for Maori rights.
"Being aspirational capitalists is not necessarily promoting Maori wellbeing. It will promote the individual wellbeing of a single Maori capitalist but it will not promote the general social wellbeing of Maori whanau and community."
She says they want to see immediate interventions such as the building of 30,000 state homes for the poor and the feeding of kids in schools and to see wealth spread more evenly.
Maori Affairs commentator Jon Stokes said the Maori Party had played an important role in raising Maori aspirations and ensuring the Government was mindful of Maori and the need to bring them along.
With National looking likely to win a third time he believed it was important to have the Maori Party there to provide that voice.
"For Maori in general, if they aren't at the table post this election then it's a fairly harrowing situation because you'll have a National Government propped up with either or both Act and the Conservatives and that arrangement will be dire for Maori." He said he expected the Maori Party to get at least two seats - Waiariki along with possibly Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau, which would be close races.
Those seats are currently held by retiring Maori Party founders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples whose departure means the seats are up for grabs with Labour expected to pose the biggest challenges.
Massey University Professor of Indigenous Studies Rawiri Taonui says that "at best" the Maori Party will get one or two seats - Waiariki and possibly Tamaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauauru - while Mana will get one to three.
Labour would hold its current three: Hauraki-Waikato, Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Te Ta Tonga and possibly pick up Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau, he said.
Disillusionment among Maori voters would cause a low turnout, which would benefit Labour while the Maori Party, on 0.9 per cent in the latest poll, was also hurting itself by aiming to win all seven seats.
"It's unrealistic to state it … and it probably does them more harm than good to say that because most people won't believe it." In what he described as potentially the "ultimate irony", Taonui believed that National could get as much as 11 per cent of the party vote in the Maori electorates - despite the Maori Party having been hurt as a result of its association.
The key for the Maori Party was Waiariki, which Flavell was likely to hold but which would be tight.
Flavell recognises this and will spend most of his time outside of his national media commitments campaigning there, while Turia and Sharples will support their replacements.
He says he's comfortable defending the Maori Party's record against anyone. September will tell if that message got through.
- Sunday Star Times
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