Throwing Maori plight into new focus

While still in his 50s, Parekura Horomia observed that as a Maori man he probably had only about a decade left to live.

His words were as prophetic as his death was predictable.

As a Maori male, the late Mr Horomia was statistically unlikely to live a long and healthy old age.

According to the 2010 Social Report by the Ministry of Social Development he might have hoped to make it to 70, the average Maori male life expectancy.

In fact, Mr Horomia didn't even make it that far. After years battling obesity, often publicly, he died aged just 62.

A quick read through the roll call in the Maori seats show his passing was hardly exceptional. The number of Maori MPs who have passed away in office seems disproportionately high.

Mr Horomia's legacy has been listed as the renaissance of te reo through the establishment of state- funded Maori television and a proliferation of Maori radio stations.

But he may achieve another legacy in his death if it spurs a renewed focus on the long- standing indicators of Maori deprivation - including poor Maori health - among the scores of MPs who have chartered planes or choppered in to Tolaga Bay to pay their respects.

Debate in the Maori seats in recent years has been trapped in the wash of the contentious 2004 foreshore and seabed legislation.

But nearly a decade later Maoridom has moved on.

The effects of that legislation were momentous politically, spawning the birth of the Maori Party and, as revealed by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia this week, coming close to cleaving the entire Maori caucus away from Labour. As Mrs Turia tells it, it was only the intervention of Mr Horomia that stopped the rest of Labour's Maori caucus from walking away with her.

If he had failed, the Maori Party would have been likely to be a much more potent force now.

But the legacy of all that turbulence and passion is far from momentous in terms of its meaning in the day-to-day life of most Maori; the Foreshore and Seabed Act part two, thrashed out between National and the Maori Party to symbolise their new working relationship, is in reality barely distinguishable from Labour's predecessor legislation. Mostly it was a political stunt, one that suited the purposes of both parties electorally.

Unsurprisingly, history was repeated when the Maori Party's maverick MP Hone Harawira followed in the footsteps of Mrs Turia - the one-time caucus maverick herself - by walking away to set up his own party.

Meanwhile, for all the political energy and rhetoric it sucked up, repealing Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act did nothing in terms of addressing the burning issues facing Maoridom - poorer health, lower incomes, welfare dependency and cripplingly high levels of youth unemployment, to name a few.

By-elections have a way of turning into a referendum on the government of the day.

In Mr Horomia's Ikaroa- Rawhiti seat, that is likely to make it a referendum on the Maori Party by default, since National sees no upside in standing a candidate itself.

Four years on from the ink drying on that first coalition deal with National, the Maori Party's challenge then - both in the upcoming by-election, and more crucially in next year's general election - is showing that being inside the tent counted for something.

It may struggle.

Like many minor parties, it has failed to lift itself above a collection of bandwagons. There was the foreshore and seabed act repeal, of course. Te Ururoa Flavell is championing a private member's bill addressing the harm from gambling. Co-leader Pita Sharples spearheaded the push for a constitutional review - though the terms of reference eventually agreed by National are so broad his original aim, to debate the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in a constitution, looks likely to be drowned out by other issues.

Mrs Turia's beloved Whanau Ora, meanwhile, putters along beneath the radar and remains a largely piece-meal and underwhelming response to the ultimate dream of devolving service delivery across the board to Maori communities.

In that sense then, the arrival of the Maori Party failed to herald the revolutionary change some might have looked to it to provide.

Even Whanau Ora, or the principles behind it, has been washing around for years.

In his maiden speech to Parliament, Mr Horomia articulated largely the same vision of devolution as Mrs Turia. Labour's response was Closing the Gaps, a programme designed to shift funding into areas where the gaps in outcomes between Maori and Pakeha were biggest.

But as former Te Puni Kokiri boss Leith Comer succinctly noted in one speech, meaningful changes in outcome indicators like mortality, welfare dependency and unemployment occur over a much longer time frame than politics.

Closing the Gaps simply became political fodder, and a catch-phrase for special treatment for Maori. Perceptions were so negative the programme had to be renamed, and funding for Maori initiatives became politically fraught.

If there is one transformational change brought about by the Maori Party then it is not what they have achieved as individual MPs or ministers in office, but the relationship they have forged between Maori and National.

Their decision to partner with National was a brave leap for the party's MPs at the time. The fact that it now seems unremarkable is the pay-off.

In taking that route, the Maori Party forced National on to a level playing field when it comes to addressing the issues around Maori statistics, rather than looking for political gain in taking potshots at the solutions.

It also shook Labour's entitlement attitude toward the Maori seats and the wider support of Maoridom.

National's efforts to set up meaningful channels of communication with iwi leaders underscore that.

The result is an environment which is far more conducive to cross-party buy-in to solutions for Maori.

It may be a hard one to pitch to voters. But if it endures, the Maori Party legacy will be more lasting than Mr Horomia's.

The Dominion Post