Inside Story

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Caught in the middle

Disunited, the Maori Party risks losing identity and support, writes Norm Kelly in Wellington

Above: Maori Party rebel Hone Harawira campaigning during the 2008 election.
Photo: Cle0patra/ Flickr

THE hearts and minds of most New Zealanders, and many people around the world, have been with the people of Christchurch during the past ten days, and the National government and Labour opposition have been united in their response to the tragedy. But party politics didn’t stop – at least for the Maori Party, whose problems continued to play out in a very public way.

One of the oldest truisms in politics is that disunity is death. Notable Australian examples of the maxim at work include the John Howard–Andrew Peacock feud, which helped to keep Labor in power during the 1980s. Within smaller parties, disunity can have literally terminal consequences, as the Australian Democrats demonstrated in the early 2000s. When the party membership felt that the Senate team had become too close to the Howard government, especially by supporting the GST legislation, Natasha Stott Despoja deposed Meg Lees as leader. She never gained the confidence of her party room and the party never recovered from the dramatic spill.

In the lead-up to this year’s general election in New Zealand, to be held on 26 November, the Maori Party is looking set to put the old cliché to the sternest test. Like the Democrats, the Maori Party has attempted to straddle the left–right ideological divide. The party was established in 2004 by current co-leader, Tariana Turia, a Labour minister who had resigned from parliament over the Labour government legislation bringing Maori coastal land into public ownership. At the 2005 election, the Maori Party won four of the seven reserved Maori seats, with Labour winning the other three. Prior to 2004, all seven Maori seats had been held by Labour.

Although born of a leftist agenda and a largely leftist support base, the party chose to occupy the opposition benches during the final term of Helen Clark’s Labour government. At the 2008 general election, the Maori Party won an additional seat and quickly became a government party by forming a coalition with the right-of-centre National Party (and, further to the right, the ACT Party). As part of government, the Maori Party has supported an increase in the GST rate (from 12.5 to 15 per cent), the introduction of an emissions trading scheme and revision of the foreshore legislation.

These measures have by no means been uniformly supported by Maoridom. The GST increase, in particular, adversely affects Maori in the lower and mid-range socioeconomic brackets. Who, many people are consequently wondering, does the Maori Party actually represent?

The party’s co-leaders, Turia and former university lecturer Pita Sharples, are both government ministers (but outside cabinet, by their own choosing) and are often seen as having been “captured” by the National Party. But they have also worked hard to show that by being part of government they can negotiate advantages for their core constituency. Examples include new Maori-specific health programs and employment schemes for Maori youth.

In recent months, however, the Maori Party MP Hone Harawira has increasingly criticised the party’s close relationship with the government, especially opposing his party’s support for the new foreshore legislation. Harawira has a history of aggressive anti-authority behaviour, whether it was bashing drunken Pakeha (non-Maori) university students in the 1970s, or using a taxpayer-funded trip to go sightseeing in Paris in 2009. (“How many times in my lifetime am I going to get to Europe? So I thought, ‘F*** it, I’m off. I’m off to Paris.’”) That time, the party defended him. This time, it lost patience.

The result will be a divided party, in terms of policy, personnel and perception among Maori peoples. Whereas the Maori Party had been looking at winning all seven Maori seats in November, it may be struggling to hang on to what it has. Harawira, with his strong personal following, should easily retain his northern seat of Te Tai Tokerau. Turia should be able to retain her seat, given her high profile and the respect she has among the Maori community. But Sharples will have a tough fight in his Tamaki Makaurau seat, up against high-profile Labour MP Shane Jones, who is keen to move from a “party” seat into a Maori seat. (“Party” or “list” seats are a feature of New Zealand’s MMP electoral system.)

The remaining two Maori Party seats will also be difficult to retain, especially the South Island seat of Te Tai Tonga. Currently held by Rahui Katene with a 1000-vote buffer, in the party vote Labour outpolled the Maori Party by more than two to one, and could be expected to win the seat back this year. In the past two elections, Labour has won the party vote in all Maori seats, and given the Maori Party’s history on issues such as the GST, Labour has plenty of ammunition to mount a campaign to win back a traditional element of the core Labour seats.

Both Labour and National will be looking for coalition partners after the election to build a majority in the parliament, so the future of the Maori Party is difficult to predict. While the party leaders, Turia and Sharples, have plenty of respect in Maori and broader political circles, they will both be in their seventies in the next term of parliament, and some form of generational change will be required to freshen up the party. As for Hone Harawira, he and the Maori Party agreed to part ways last week, with Harawira resigning from the party and the party agreeing not to stand a candidate against him later this year. He may be able to carve out a following for a left-wing Maori Party, or continue to play the spoiling role as an independent.

Like the Australian Democrats in their day, the Maori Party relies on sensible, high-profile leadership and a unified parliamentary team to generate voter support. Unfortunately the only publicity the party has been getting is in relation to its feud with Harawira. The real test will be whether the party can make clear what it stands for. This may be easier without Harawira around, but the result might not be what Maori people want. •

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“Berlusconi go away” (above): graffiti photographed in Florence as the controversy over the prime minister’s behaviour intensified more than four years ago.
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