Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: The disintegration of Maori politics

Pita Sharples, flanked by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia and MP Te Ururoa Flavell, during the press conference where he announced his decision to stand-down as co-leader. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Pita Sharples, flanked by Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia and MP Te Ururoa Flavell, during the press conference where he announced his decision to stand-down as co-leader. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The resignation of Pita Sharples from the leadership of the Maori Party may be a landmark in the demise of pan-Maori politics. It's certainly hard to escape the feeling that the Maori Party is now terminal.

As John Armstrong wrote yesterday, Sharples' resignation may be too little, too late. And Armstrong has updated that view today, with his short piece, Confusion reigns for Maori Party, pointing out that the party faces an uphill battle to rejuvenate, but the leadership transition is a very murky one with strategic problems. Today's Dominion Post is also calling the party 'a spent force', saying that it 'has been overtaken by events... the tide has turned against the Maori Party'. What's more, 'With Labour on one side and former Maori Party firebrand Hone Harawira's Mana Party on the other, it is hard to see how the party can possibly re-establish its credentials' - see: Tiny waka caught in National stream.

In contrast, Maori political blogger Morgan Godfery has written a lengthy analysis of the state of Maori electoral politics, and he sees potential for the Maori Party to rebuild, and offers suggestions for achieving this - see: Maori politics: crisis, opportunities and the Greens.

But Godfery admits that the Maori Party as 'a pan-Maori political party.... has failed' and that 'it must carve a coherent position' in ideological terms before it can succeed.

Godfery also draws attention to larger changes in Maori politics when he notes that 'The post-settlement era is close and the Maori renaissance era is closing'. In this sense, it possible to detect a larger decline in Maori politics. Today, political commentator Rawiri Taonui is reported as believing that Sharples' resignation together with 'Mrs Turia's impending exit, the likely failure of the Maori option to deliver an eighth Maori seat and the outcome of the Ikaroa- Rawhiti by-election represented a turning point for an independent Maori voice in Parliament' - see Vernon Small's very good coverage of the Sharples resignation in Cultural leader's political legacy remains uncertain. And elsewhere, Taonui is reported as saying 'that a drop in the Maori electoral roll shows that the infighting between Mana and Maori is taking a toll on voters, who are giving up on the idea of an independent Maori voice leading them into the future' - see Radio NZ's Mana and Maori at risk of losing seats.

This idea of Maori political decline is repeated in today's Herald editorial, Maori Party needs to find ways to rejuvenate, with the message that 'The low turnout in Ikaroa-Rawhiti last Saturday was as telling as the results. Maori voters appear not to be strongly inclined in any direction now. They have no compelling issue such as the foreshore and seabed that gave rise to the Maori Party'.

The Maori Party's major weakness appears to have been its core model of operating as an ethnicity-based party, independent of class and other political forces. Also, the party has suffered for it's willingness to go with either major party, regardless of socio-economic factors. As Tariana Turia has repeated endlessly, the model of the Maori Party is based on the choice of preferring to be 'a player' rather than 'sitting on the sidelines'. Or to put it more critically, choosing to work with the Establishment rather than against it. But that choice appears to have been an unpopular one amongst Maori voters. As the Herald states today, 'Unfortunately, she has put that choice directly to Maori voters many times before. Each time the answer suggests Maori voters are less convinced that they need a party willing to work with governments from either side of the political spectrum'.

Scott Yorke has also blogged about this in a message to Sharples: 'You have always argued that it is better to be at the big table where the decisions were being made. The trouble is you never were at the big boys' table. You were under it, eating the scraps that the master threw down'. Yorke continues, 'If you are making a difference in the lives of ordinary Maori, then they don't appear to have realised it. It's no wonder that so many who voted for them in 2008 have apparently abandoned them' - see: Pita, please don't go!

Not all on the left have been critical of Sharples. The No Right Turn blog briefly salutes Sharples for resigning: 'Isn't it refreshing to see a political leader resign for their political failings? All too often we just get a wall of denial, and a refusal to recognise that allowing a perception of failure is, in a political leader, a failing. The result is an absence of accountability and people grimly hanging on long after their use-by date. Pita Sharples could have done that for the sake of his mortgage. Instead, he has acknowledged the reality of his failure and accepted responsibility for it. It would be nice if certain other politicians would do the same' - see: A thought.

But has the Maori Party really failed? There have in fact been plenty of gains, and for this reason, Keith Rankin argues today that 'The Maori Party has made a positive difference to Maori, compared to what might otherwise have happened' - see: Maori Party's popularity slump all down to perception.

The survival of a Maori-based party might still be bolstered by some sort of alliance between Mana and Maori parties, but that now looks less likely with Sharples' departure. Flavell is now effectively 'in charge', and he's likely to veto any chance of a merger between the parties or even an electoral deal between the parties. As Paul Moon says, 'Flavell and Hone Harawira have a lot of bad blood between them and that's going to prevent any sort of merger taking place' - see Annabel Reid's Maori-Mana merge now unlikely, says expert. Of course there is more than just personality clashes at work here. The relationship with National is probably a deal-breaker and a merger would almost certainly see the end of Flavell's leadership and future ministerial ambitions. He has struggled to be accepted as a leader in the much depleted Maori Party and would inevitably be relegated behind Harawira in any re-united movement. Although a Mana-Maori deal in Waiariki would secure Flavell's place as an MP, the cost to his own political career is a sacrifice it doesn't look like he is prepared to make.

There are still important questions about Tariana Turia's replacement - who will be the new female co-leader? When will the succession occur? Who will be the new Maori Party candidate in her seat? Former Maori Party MP, Rahui Katene has announced that she's keen to replace Turia as co-leader, and she intends to stand again in Te Tai Tonga - see - Radio NZ's Katene talks up co-leading with Flavell. It is also worth noting that Katene is a strong advocate for a Mana-Maori merger or deal.

So, might Labour simply re-inherit the Maori seats? Any Labour gains in the Maori seats will be by default. Labour's leadership and record in the Maori seats is not good. Twice in 20 years Labour has been pushed out and nearly wiped out in the Maori seats. In general Labour's record of holding onto electorate seats is poor - the party is simply not very good at it any more. Colin James has written about his in his column, Labour's Maori seats: alliance or absorption? James says, 'all or most of the seats have twice left Labour in the past 20 years. Unless Labour works out how to make them into Maori seats allied to Labour, they will be vulnerable to the next Maori electoral force. Why? The only point of having Maori seats is as a channel for expressing distinct Maori interests, ambitions and needs. Maori socioeconomic needs and interests can be represented through the general seats'.

Finally, for some alternative views on these issues, see Ben Uffindell's Media struggles to not use 'pita wraps' pun in describing Sharples resignation, and my own blog post, Images of Pita Sharples and the state of the Maori Party.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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