I've always thought that calling the Te Tai Tokerau by-election was a mistake for Mana. Not because of the cost to the country, which is insignificant in the context of what it costs to have a democracy. I thought it was a mistake because of the costs to the party.
Firstly the Mana Party has few resources. While almost the entire Te Tai Tokerau section of the Maori Party seems to have gone straight over to Mana, its bank accounts probably didn't.
Even in terms of human energy, it is a big ask to expect party activists to run a by-election and then have to run the general election campaign straight after. Door-knocking, mailbox drops, stalls and billboards take a lot out of a branch.
Added to this, the Labour Party is free to give the by-election its undivided attention in a way that it could not do in a general election. Especially this one. While the Labour machine may not cut a lot of ice in Ahipara it has certainly made some headway in the southern, more urban end of the electorate. Getting those votes back takes a level of grunt that Mana may not have.
Perhaps most importantly, at this stage in its life Mana needs to be building its organisation, its membership, its policies and its processes, not getting itself bogged down in a skirmish in the North. At the Mana Party launch I challenged the party to avoid becoming the kind of political party that revolves around one man, by building a truly national organisation with strong collective leadership. That means Hone Harawira getting around the country, building branches, shoulder tapping candidates and organisers and inspiring people to get involved. It also means getting the principles and policies of the party clear.
It is by doing this that Mana has the potential to become a potent political force. My hope for years has been to see a third political space open up in New Zealand parliamentary politics, where a combination of small parties is able to challenge the duopoly of National and Labour. As a greenwing activist and commentator it seems obvious that the core of that third force would be the Greens, an independent Maori voice and a genuine left party. Mana has the potential to fill more than one of those spaces, if it is able to bring together the Pakeha left and progressive Maori in the way its launch suggested it might.
Instead Mana is using its time to prove that Hone Harawira has a mandate to be the MP for Te Tai Tokerau. Honestly, I don't think anyone doubted it. In fact (with the benefit of hindsight) it seems obvious that a by-election would be unable to improve on the assumption most of us already had - that support for Hone in the electorate was virtually unanimous. All a by-election could ever do was weaken that assumption, which of course is what the polls have now done. I'm pretty confident that Hone will win on Saturday but he will probably never again look as unassailable as he did before the by-election was called.
That is not to say there have been no benefits for Mana in this race. Hone has been generally acknowledged the winner in his various debates by mainstream political commentators. His political style has had some of the rougher edges knocked off in the tumble of the campaign and the more exposure he gets, the less of a caricature he becomes in people's minds. That undermining of the irrational fear and loathing that many Pakeha have will be useful in the longer term.
But whoever takes the seat on Saturday, Kelvin Davis will consider himself a winner. He has represented the Labour Party well. He will be an MP either way and even if he does not take the seat he will be the man that almost knocked out Hone Harawira on his first run. It seems he is, as he says, a born politician and I'm sure it won't be long before the press gallery starts calling him Labour's rising star and speculating on his leadership prospects. Which is kind of why I'm rooting for Hone – the born activist and shit stirrer. Who Hone represents is those people who rarely get represented in the New Zealand colonial parliament.