Party leaders battle for crucial Ratana blessing

The annual battle for political support from a Maori religious group will get under way tomorrow with opponents looking to deepen the divide between Labour and their traditional Ratana ally.

The Ratana church is a Maori religious movement founded in the early 20th century by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, who believed he was visited by a vision which told him to preach to the Maori people.

Celebrations of TW Ratana's birthday are held annually over Wellington anniversary weekend at Ratana Pa, near Whanganui.

Labour leader David Shearer will make the pilgrimage for the first time since taking over the party reins.

The party has a historical alliance with Ratana and has been working hard to rebuild that relationship in recent years.

The selection of candidates such as new Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene, whose grandfather Sir Eruera Tirikatene was the first Ratana member of Parliament, will help.

"The relationship has been there. I suppose it's had its ups and downs but I think there's a willingness there if we commit to building those linkages again," Mr Tirikatene said.

Labour's strong showing in the Maori electorates in the general election last year was an encouraging sign, he said.

Just before Mr Shearer and his Labour team are welcomed on to the marae tomorrow afternoon, Prime Minister John Key and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples will lead the government delegation on.

Also in the mix will be NZ First leader Winston Peters, Mana leader Hone Harawira and the Green Party's Maori caucus.

NZ First broke Labour's stronghold on the Maori seats and eventually won them all in 1996. But the party is now in favour of abolishing separate Maori electorates and has not stood candidates in them since 2002.

Mr Peters said while other politicians attended the Ratana celebrations for political reasons, he did not.

"People do a lot of talking but when it comes to delivery they're a bad used car salesman – plenty of pre-sale talk, no after-sale delivery. That's the difference between NZ First and the rest of them."

Mr Harawira is also a thorn in Labour's side when it comes to the Maori seats and with a large contingent of Ratana followers based in the north he will be popular at the celebrations.

Mana Party election candidate and Ratana member Kereama Pene said if the church's leader remained a Labour supporter the church would officially follow the party.

But the membership were making their own choices. "There's a real direction coming out of Ratana. They have the free will to put their vote wherever they deem it proper."

Ratana had supported NZ First to win all the Maori seats but many followers felt the party had not delivered, Mr Pene said.

"I would think some of the Ratana people would probably be wondering whether or not they should trust [Mr Peters] or whether or not he might deliver during this term."

Meanwhile, many saw Mr Harawira as a "viable candidate" to fight for the Treaty, he said: "He doesn't walk on as a politician ... he actually walks on with his own people, which is quite unique."

The Dominion Post