Monday, January 31, 2011

Bringing the Maori Party back from the brink

Tomorrow the Maori Party has a chance to pull back from the brink, when Hone Harawira and Te Ururoa Flavell meet at Taheke Marae in Rotorua for the first time since Mr Flavell made a formal complaint against his colleague. To do so, though, will take a much more skillful handling of the conflict than the party has shown thus far.

The key question is whether either side actually wants to pull back anymore. I doubt Hone wrote the column that preceeded all this with the intention of splitting the party, but he may now be beyond caring. What is clear, though, is that the leadership of the Party has been trying to force him out for a long time. Over a year ago I wrote about how a rumour campaign had been started against Mr Harawira (well before the 'white motherfuckers' email) that seemed intended to undermine his support base. More recently rumours were being circulated in the party that he was considering leaving the Maori Party, including giving impetus to the speculation that he might team up with Sue Bradford and Matt McCarten.

In trying to oust Harawira, though, the difficulty that the party faces is not just that he is a hard man to take out. Mr Harawira does represent an important strand of opinion in the party. I have spoken to Maori activists all over the country – at tangi, at hui and at celebrations – who have volunteered their dissatisfaction with the direction of the party and their intention to vote Green this election if things don't change. In particular they highlight Metiria Turei's intelligent, articulate and principled outspokenness on things of concern to Maori – including an array of environmental issues such as mining – and they wonder why the Maori Party has so often remained silent.

The Maori Party leadership might respond that these criticisms are unfair. That the party has achieved a number of important successes for Maori as a result of their relationship with National. Many mainstream Pakeha political commentators would agree. The real judges of whether the trade-off has been worth it, though, will be Maori voters come election time. And not just voters. One of the factors in the Maori Party's success thus far is the enormous energy and enthusiam of its activists. It is those activists, the election harvesters, that are starting to down tools, pack up and go home. If the party loses their support it will still survive but in my view will go into decline. Rather than winning all 7 Maori seats as I once hoped, it is likely that they will start to lose seats.

Hone will no doubt win Te Tai Tokerau should he choose to contest it as an independent. The speculation that he might lead a newly formed Left party (or even more bizarrely join a Left party led by Sue Bradford) is no more than wishful thinking in my opinion. That rumours continue to swirl says more about the lack of confidence that such a party could get elected on its own merit than anything about Mr Harawira's intentions. That is not to say that I would not love to see a genuinely Left party in the Parliament. My long term hope has always been for a coalition of Greens, Browns and Reds to between them make up the dominant partner in a Government.

Having said that, the best thing for the Maori Party, and for Hone Harawira, in my view is to resolve their differences. That means finding some new accomodation between them that recognises both their need to honour their commitments and maintain their relationship with National and their need to honour the voice of their own people and maintain a clear distance from National. In particular the influence of the Iwi Leaders Group on policy, a cause of dissatisfaction among many supporters, needs to be opened up for debate.

If the Maori Party, and Mr Harawira, can achieve this then they will have done something extraordinary. The biggest challenge for the Maori Party has always been to balance the interests of its diverse constituency. If they cannot, and Mr Harawira is forced to leave, then they will have failed that crucial test.