Horomia leaves another legacy

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 12:12 06/05/2013

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OPINION: While still in his 50s, Parekura Horomia observed that as a Maori man he probably had about only 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 to 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 age 70, the average Maori male life expectancy.

In fact, Mr Horomia didn't even make it that far. After years of 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 died 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 Maori radio. 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 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 likely 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 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 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 high levels of youth unemployment.

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The by-election for Mr Horomia's Ikaroa Rawhiti seat, is likely to become a referendum on the Maori Party by default, since National sees no upside in standing a candidate.

Four years on from that first coalition deal with National, the Maori Party's challenge - both in the upcoming by-election, and 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 piecemeal 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.

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 government funding into areas where the gaps in outcomes between Maori and Pakeha were biggest. Closing the Gaps became political fodder, and a catchphrase for special treatment for Maori.

Perceptions were so negative the programme was renamed and funding for Maori initiatives became politically fraught.

If there is one transformational change brought about by the Maori Party it is not what they have achieved as individual MPs or ministers in office, but the relationship 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. The Maori Party forced National onto a level playing field when 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.

National's efforts to set up meaningful channels of communication with iwi leaders underscore that. The result is an environment 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.

- Fairfax Media

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