OPINION: The suspension of maverick Maori Party MP Hone Harawira from his caucus had an inevitability about it. The action followed party co-leader Pita Sharples' blunt warning to his MP at the weekend to shape up, ship out or be shipped out. Sharples' comment came after he was gazumped at Waitangi by Harawira delivering a state of the Maori nation speech ahead of his own. This was perceived by Sharples as an attack on his leadership.
Predictably, however, Harawira did not heed this warning and continued to defend his original comments about the party being too close to National. He also said that he does not believe he must abide by caucus discipline processes. Clearly his leaders had had enough and, ahead of a party disciplinary hearing scheduled for tomorrow, indefinitely suspended Harawira, saying that his caucus had lost confidence in him.
Few could believe that the suspension will silence Harawira's criticism of his party leaders and their action might even provoke him into being even more outspoken, raising the real prospect that he could be expelled from the party itself.
Sharples had also raised the spectre of the party disappearing for all time if the split within it continued and it could not establish itself as a credible partner in government. This clearly was aimed at rank-and- file members and suggests that the party leadership is concerned that Harawira's comments, including his opposition to key National policies such as the foreshore and seabed bill and the rise in GST, are resonating among Maori.
Sharples might also be worried that the divisions within his party could grow and that Harawira supporters might contest the Maori seats, at the least splitting the vote to Labour's advantage.
Sharples' party faces the problem of other smaller parties in government, that of retaining their own brand while being a stable support partner, and chalking up policy wins, something the Maori Party has achieved.
Harawira certainly has the strong support of his electorate committee in his Te Tai Tokerau seat, which might in future have to choose between Harawira and the party. Should Harawira stand there as an independent, or for the rumoured new Left-wing party, he must be rated as having a good chance of prevailing.
This would be unusual in New Zealand politics. Generally when MPs quit a party, or are expelled, they succumb at the next election or in a by- election. The noteworthy exceptions have been Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne, who both left Labour, and Winston Peters, who had been a National MP.
But all three were personally popular in their electorates and could claim with some plausibility that their parties had left them, not the other way around. Harawira, if ultimately expelled, would no doubt also argue that his party had moved away from its founding ideals and from him by supporting National.
With National having ruled out working with Winston Peters after the next election, and as a question mark hangs over ACT New Zealand's survival, the danger of a Maori Party implosion would be serious for Prime Minister John Key. What occurs over coming days and weeks with respect to Harawira could be crucial to determining whether National or Labour heads the next government.
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