Maori Party urged to drive hard bargain

KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 10/12/2011

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Mana Party leader Hone Harawira has some advice for his former colleagues in the Maori Party – it's time to get tough when you negotiate with Prime Minister John Key.

"They need to put the hammer down and say, `we've taken a lot of s... from our people from hanging out with you guys and now it's time to pay up'."

The Maori Party emerged from last month's election licking its wounds, blaming a close relationship with National and the split earlier this year with Mr Harawira for its poor performance, in which it lost Te Tai Tonga and saw co-leader Pita Sharples' majority slashed.

But the day after the election the party's executive was meeting in Auckland to discuss the possibility of another arrangement with National.

National doesn't need the Maori Party to govern. It has achieved that with confidence and supply deals with UnitedFuture's Peter Dunne and ACT's John Banks.

However, getting three more votes will provide stability in the face of a volatile ACT Party and possible unrest in National's own swollen ranks.

That puts the Maori Party in a stronger position than it was in 2008, despite having two fewer MPs.

It has said it is looking for long-term structural changes this time round and bolstering Whanau Ora – the programme it champions as a whole-family approach to social services aimed at making families self-reliant – would be a bottom line.

But Mr Harawira said there was little to be proud of with Whanau Ora, which he said was slashed from a $1 billion plan to completely change the provision of services, to a $164 million programme designed to fail. Likewise, Dr Sharples' pet project of Maori-run prisons ended up with "a couple of halfway houses".

The Maori Party had given up too much and achieved few gains, he said.

They had played the "nice little Maori boy" for the last three years.

Now it was time for Mr Key to pay up or the Maori Party should walk away from any deal, he said.

Canterbury University academic John Mitchell said the party could have achieved the gains it made over the past term without having to vote for raising GST or tax cuts for the rich. He pointed to the Greens, who made small inroads in their core policy areas through a memorandum of understanding with John Key's Government while remaining an opposition party.

"I'm absolutely delighted that there is a stronger Maori voice now than there ever was. But I'm not convinced that they need to get into bed to the extent that they have with National to achieve the same ends."

There are a number of areas where a deal between National and the Maori Party could fall down. The Maori Party is against partial state-owned asset sales, wants the Defence Force withdrawn immediately from Afghanistan and has called for a moratorium on deep sea oil drilling.

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Dr Sharples has indicated that asset sales could be left out of any support deal and passed in separate legislation which would save the party from having to vote for them.

Maori affairs blogger Morgan Godfery said the party would likely compromise on asset sales to focus on structural changes, specifically Whanau Ora.

There was a perception the party had achieved only symbolic gestures – rather than substantial gains over the past three years, he said.

"I expect them though really just to work with retention [of Whanau Ora] at the moment. Before the election [Social Development Minister] Paula Bennett wouldn't commit to continuing the scheme and I think in any deal that has to be a bottom line."

The party was looking to make changes where it could and knew that sweeping ideological changes on welfare and poverty wouldn't wash with the Government.

But it needed to reclaim issues the Mana Party had stolen – such as child poverty – and that could be done via Whanau Ora.

Former National MP and Cabinet minister Georgina te Heuheu agreed Whanau Ora should be a focus.

Gaining a constitutional review and signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People were important, but did not affect people's everyday lives, she said.

"Whanau Ora has the capacity to transform the way the Government interacts with communities in terms of social services and strong families."

Labour MP and former Maori Affairs minister Parekura Horomia said the Maori Party should focus on basic issues such as the cost of living and had to also counter the Right-wing policies of fellow coalition partner ACT.

"When you see this charter school stuff, it makes the mind boggle on where we get into cherry picking or that sort of thing ... I think they need to be really clear on where is Maori involved."

The party is also canvassing people's feelings about a leadership challenge, which commentators agree has been handled badly.

At their campaign launch Dr Sharples and Mrs Turia announced they would be retiring before the next election.

Last week, party president Pem Bird suggested Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell may take over as co-leader now, which came as a surprise to Dr Sharples, who wasn't aware his position was under threat.

Mr Bird has since apologised and a special meeting to decide on the leadership will likely be held on December 17.

The general confusion over the handling of the event is symptomatic of the party's dealings.

It is often unorganised, hard to contact and fails to communicate in a clear and timely manner.

Unusually for politicians, its members don't even capitalise on positive media opportunities.

Mr Harawira said his wife, Hilda, told him he was fortunate to have left the party.

"That's true. I'm lucky to be out of there."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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