In the immediate aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk issued the famous (and famously scary) verdict : “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” For some months, Hone Harawira and the Maori Party leadership have been locked in a similar eyeball-to-eyeball blinking contest, one with equal risks of mutual destruction.
Until mid 2010, the Te Tai Tokerau MP and his party leaders had managed a relatively sustainable level of marital bickering. Sure, there were disputes over policy and territory, but the conflict seemed manageable because there were clear advantages for both sides in not letting matters get out of hand. The Maori Party could use Harawira as a badge of integrity to constituents troubled by its co-operation with the Key government – if Hone could still wear it, the gains must be substantial, right? – while Harawira clearly enjoyed the perks of being a Maori Party MP, and owed his party a debt of gratitude on that score. It has been very reminiscent of the situation Sue Bradford faced in the Greens as the credible representative of the social justice planks of the party – at the same time as the Greens leadership were quietly dialling back those issues during the 2008 election campaign, for electoral gain.
All the arguments for staying on board have worn thin for Harawira as (a) the gains to Maori from the rewrite of the foreshore and seabed law have been exposed as woefully slim and (b) the likely punitive outcome for Maori of the Welfare Working Group policy recommendations have edged ever closer. If he is to retain any personal integrity (and among his constituents, that reputation precedes the creation of the Maori Party) Harawira knows – and the party leadership knows – that he cannot swallow the government’s likely welfare policy this year, let alone campaign on it in November. Thus, the relationship between Harawira and the Maori Party seems to have entered a new and terminal phase. The only question now is when – and what will Harawira do after the split happens?
The WWG final report is due to be issued in the week beginning February 21. An early March break would clear the decks for Harawira to run as an independent in the Te Tai Tokerau electorate in the November elections. The more interesting thing is what would happen next, and what Harawira would advise his electorate supporters to do with their party vote. For months, the left has been talking about Harawira becoming the lynchpin of a new left party that might include Bradford and Matt McCarten. Probably, nothing would please the Maori Party more than seeing Harawira hitch up with a new party configuration almost immediately. The real danger that a liberated Hone Harawira poses to his current colleagues would be if he remained flying solo as a Maori independent – a voice of integrity for Maori against what he could then denounce as the brown sellouts in Cabinet. If Harawira hitches his wagon to the remnants of the old Alliance, he would not only blur his standing with his Maori constituents, but would foreclose some of his future options.
If he runs alone this year – at arms length from both McCarten/Bradford and the Maori Party – Harawira can then allow people to come to him, and bid for his endorsement for the Te Tai Tokerau party vote, and in the Maori electorates beyond. Next year, he would be in an even stronger position to either form a new left wing party, or bid afresh to become the saviour of a chastened Maori Party. This doesn’t mean he would forego being a player in this year’s election. By staying simply as the independent MP for Te Tai Tokerau, Harawira could pull the Maori Party to the left in the upcoming election campaign and make it virtually impossible for them to support John Key after the election. The simple reality is that Hone Harawira can do far more for Maori in future from outside the Maori Party than he can any longer from within it.
For similar reasons, it would be a distraction for Harawira to go into the 2011 election with a number of familiar radical faces – brown and white – in his train. Managing the formation of a new party would be a major distraction, even if he could delegate some of that work to McCarten. This year, Harawira arguably needs to clear the decks and concentrate on building his image as the moral alternative to the Maori Party sellouts. The worst possible thing for him would be to look like the glove puppet of a bunch of left wing political operatives, some of whom would be hoping to ride into Parliament on his coat-tails.
If Harawira truly wants to lead his own party he could do so after the 2011 election – and set his sights on 2014 when National will be on the slide. By waiting, he builds his image of integrity and keeps his options open. Why would leading a left wing party be any more attractive to him than leading the Maori Party one day, once the current leadership has discredited itself? He can accomplish more from the outside, by putting pressure on the Maori Party to move left – or lose his endorsement for the Te Tai Tokerau party vote. He could exert similar pressure on Phil Goff to return Labour to its roots, and forego any dalliance with New Zealand First. If Harawira joined up immediately with a new radical party, he could well weaken his ability to play that brokering role in the coming months and years. Time is on his side, if he’s willing to play a long game.