Illustration by Tim Denee – www.timdenee.com
In the wake of his victory in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election, Hone Harawira has run strategic rings around the Maori Party by offering an ostensible olive branch to them to work together for the good of Maori, and having that offer soundly rejected by Pita Sharples on the basis of past grievances. It was precisely the right note for Harawira – talking no longer as just an MP, but as a party leader – while Sharples has seemed flat footed and petulant in defeat.
Then again, it will be hard for someone like Sharples – who has been used to treating Harawira as a rebellious subordinate – to realise that the game has now changed. This by-election was always going to be hard for the Maori Party. Eventually, it did the best it could – it chose a poor candidate who gave Labour’s Kelvin Davis the best chance of either removing Harawira from contention entirely in November or (at the very least) of blunting his momentum in the other Maori electorates. On both counts, its by-election strategy essentially failed.
In fact, the emergence of the Mana Party leaves the Maori Party facing a genuine dilemma. Does it try and trumpet its alleged achievements over the past three years – and thus underline its closeness to National – or does it try and tack leftwards and re-position itself as the steadfast defender of Maori interests against the bulk of the government’s programme? It is a difficult decision. If the Maori Party has found it hard to wear some of the government’s programme in this first term (while retaining the trust of its constituents) the second term agenda looks much, much worse. Does Pita Sharples really want to go down in history as the Peter Dunne of Maoridom?
If nothing else, the result in Te Tai Tokerau has totally vindicated the decision to hold the by-election. Bluster as he may, John Key cannot seriously argue that this all just a stunt, and nothing really has changed. Harawira’s mandate has been established, and the margin seems about right. The 6,000 majority in 2008 was always misleading, being the freak result of (a) the tide going out on nine years of a Labour government, and (b) the Maori electorate’s early, heady romance with the Maori Party. Take out the 1,000 core faithful who still voted for the abysmal Maori Party candidate and the return of Labour’s vote to more like its genuine level, and Harawira’s margin of victory is still within reasonable proximity of the circa 1500- 2000 figure that he might have hoped for.
Labour too, will undoubtedly feel that this result shows it is on the comeback trail in the Maori electorates. There is also the genuine prospect of the Mana Party splitting the Mari Party vote elsewhere around the country in November and enabling Labour to come through the middle. For a Labour Party that has been on starvation rations for good news for most of this year, such crumbs of comfort will be gratefully accepted.
For the Maori Party, the news is all bad. What this result suggests is that the Maori electorate is far more comfortable with the centre left – whether that be in the shape of the Mana Party or the Labour Party – than it is with the centre right. Try as it might, the Maori Party is still being seen as a collaborator with the government rather than as a successful champion of Maori interests. At some time between now and November, it will probably become necessary for the Maori Party to announce that it is no longer prepared to sit around the Cabinet table next time, and to be a willing accomplice in welfare reform policies and an asset sales programme.
At the very least, the Te Tai Tokerau by election underlines the volatility of the Maori electorate. Since the mid 1990s, Maori hopes and expectations have attached themselves in relatively quick succession to New Zealand First, Labour, the Maori Party and now the Mana Party. It is as if each political vehicle is seen as a raiding party on government – rather than as a viable, long term player in the political process than can be trusted to deliver results over time.
Such hopes – quickly bestowed and quickly disappointed – could be taken as a sign of just how shallow the embedding has been of the Treaty partnership in the political process. Harawira will be wanting to make something more substantial out of the Mana Party – and the next sign of how he plans to position his party will come when Mana releases its party list. What sort of balance does he intend to strike in the rankings of the Maori and pakeha candidates on that list?
So far – when it comes to the things that matter – Harawira has defied expectations and not put a foot wrong. Right now, it is Sharples who seems to be more like the intemperate novice.