It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of this site that I am a supporter of the Maori Party. That is why I am disheartened with the manner in which the Maori Party have approached the Te Tai Tokerau by-election. From start to finish the entire campaign has been nothing short of shambolic, and the recent mea culpa by Tariana Turia should be a massive wake-up call to those running the Party that things need to change or they face the real possibility of political oblivion.
Every indication points towards a win for either Kelvin Davis or Hone Harawira and, as much as I want to be a cheerleader for the Maori Party, the realist in me recognises that it is a lost cause at this stage. The party hierarchy and Solomon Tipene will continue to hold out hope, as you would expect them to, but I am sure that they know just as well as most supporters do that the Native Affairs Poll put an end to their chances of retaining the seat.
So what does a defeat mean for the Maori Party? And what needs to be done to bounce back from such a result? Losing the seat will be a big blow to the party just 6 months out from a general election but it is not the end of the road by any means. Hone Harawira and Kelvin Davis are two very strong, high-profile, candidates and it was always going to be difficult for a political novice like Solomon Tipene to win the seat. As respected and knowledgable as he is, in the cut and thrust of politics he has been found wanting.
However, I do not believe that he was the wrong candidate. To the contrary, he is exactly what the Maori Party needed for this by-election. His age, experience and standing within the Maori community are such that he would represent the Party with dignity and with honour and provide a strong base for the party in the North. My belief is that it was more important for the Maori Party to show the people of Te Tai Tokerau that it was not deserting them, and Tipene’s candidacy has shown that. While not strong enough to win, he demonstrates a strong commitment to remain active in the seat and to continue fighting for the people of Te Tai Tokerau.
It is, therefore, this spirit which will carry the Maori Party through many successful years in Government – both with National and Labour as partners. The Party seeks to represent the nationwide centre and centre-right Maori constituency while staying true to Kaupapa Maori and Tikanga Maori. It has proven at times to be a difficult balance to achieve, although the ideal of Tino Rangatiratanga aligns itself more with the right-wing belief in the freedom of groups/individuals then it does with the left-wing attitudes towards Government regulation and intervention. So long as the Maori Party remains true to itself, and continues to advocate for policies such as Whanau Ora and seeks to provide Maori solutions for Maori issues then it has the ability, unmatched currently by Te Mana, to reach Maori across the county.
How does the Maori Party respond? There will no doubt be a lot of soul-searching going on within the Maori Party should they lose Te Tai Tokerau on Saturday. Obviously a close result will be good news, even if Tipene comes in a distant third. An electorate split between Harawira and Davis will mean that a national campaign by Te Mana might be a bridge too far, especially with their limited financial resources. In any event, Te Ao Maori is not well-served by a direct Maori Party v. Te Mana battle. Both parties seek to provide independent voices for Maori within Parliament and both speak to different portions of the Maori electorate. A win for Davis, or a close win for Harawira will be enough to reassure the Maori Party that Te Mana will not be a national threat. It is very likely that most of the support that Hone receives in the North is personal support rather than a firm belief in Te Mana and a reduced vote for him will come close to a rejection of Te Mana.
The personal rather than political support of Maori MP’s is also true of the other Maori electorates where all, with the possible exception of Te Tai Tonga, are held by MP’s with very strong followings within their electorate. In fact, a close look at the Maori electorate MP’s reveals a group of politicians with more Mana, more experience, more knowledge, and more ability than many of the general electorate MP’s. For this reason Turia, Sharples and Flavell are safe in their electorate seats.
Elsewhere, a rejuvenation is needed. New candidates need to be promoted in Te Tai Tokerau, Waikato-Tainui and Ikaroa-Rawhiti who represent the next generation of Maori leaders. The Party needs to get better at promoting Rangatahi Maori through to positions of leadership and into Parliament. Every minor party in this country has had to deal with the problems of succession when the popular initial leaders step aside. The Progressives will disappear when Jim Anderton retires, New Zealand First is struggling along with Winston Peters but its vote will collapse completely once he throws in the towel and the same goes for Peter Dunne and his United Future. Only the Greens have successfully managed the transition from its inspirational ‘founders’ to survive with two fresh faces at the helm. It is an approach that should be adopted by the Maori Party in the next term.
A two-term succession policy should be implemented prior to this election to ensure the long-term viability of the Maori Party. If Rahui Katene can retain Te Tai Tonga then she is a very strong candidate to take over the Wahine leadership position during the next Parliamentary term. A capable lawyer, and strong behind the scenes worker, she is well-placed to provide leadership from a Southern seat and an indication that she is next in line will also boost her campaign in Te Tai Tonga.
The most important action that the Maori Party needs to undertake is to get smarter when it comes to coalition negotiations. The 2008 Agreement with the National Party was lacking in detail and breadth and left plenty of room for its rivals to attack. With 4 or 5 MP’s after the November election, the Maori Party will once again be in a position to influence the next Government. And whether it be a National-led or Labour-led Government, the Party needs to set out very clearly in any Confidence and Supply Agreement the specific areas it will support and seek concessions in and the issues that it absolutely refuses to support. This will be a strong statement to its supporters that its ideals will not be seen to be compromised.