National courts the Maori Party

By Tony Gee, Audrey Young, Ruth Berry

National has renewed its overtures towards the Maori Party as it tries to frustrate Helen Clark's attempts to form a government.

Maori Party MPs yesterday confirmed talks with National had swung into gear again.

Co-leader Pita Sharples said there had been several meetings initiated by National "who seem to be having a discussion across the board in an effort to build up their numbers".

He believed National was also talking with NZ First and United Future.

United Future leader Peter Dunne said he had met National leader Don Brash after the election and again last week.

There had been no subsequent contact as United Future was at the moment negotiating "in good faith with Labour".

NZ First leader Winston Peters could not be reached but senior MP Brian Donnelly said he was not aware of any discussion between the party and National and believed it unlikely.

National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee downplayed talk of meetings, but did not deny there was contact between National and parties the Prime Minister is meeting.

"We have maintained at all times the channels are open. It's not unusual for politicians to talk among one another."

He denied National's courting was at odds with Mr Brash's Saturday statement that the special votes had put the ball unambiguously in Labour's court at this stage.

Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira and Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell also confirmed the talks. The possibility of working with National was being discussed at the Maori Party consultation hui.

It was understood repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act had been discussed between the two parties.

In order to govern Helen Clark needs to win a confidence and supply vote by a majority of 58 votes - especially if NZ First is only prepared to abstain on the first vote.

NZ First's position in this regard remains unclear.

If this was the position Labour would need a confidence and supply agreement with either United Future or the Maori Party.

She now has the guaranteed support of only the Green Party and Jim Anderton - a total of 57 votes.

If National, Act, United Future and the Maori Party sided together the position would be deadlocked at 57 all - forcing Mr Peters to reconsider his position on abstention.

While it is an unlikely scenario, it is possible and could split the talks about forming a government wide open.

Mr Dunne promised to talk first with the party which won the largest number of votes, but has nevertheless appeared to suggest he favours National.

Revelations of the talks emerged during the Maori Party's consultation hui. Co-leader Tariana Turia urged supporters in New Plymouth on Tuesday to reconsider perceptions that National was the "bogey".

Dr Sharples last night would not rule out the possibility of a deal with National but said it was hard to say if it could really offer his party much.

Maori Party papers handed out at the hui offer two options - to stay in Opposition or to enter a confidence and supply agreement.

But they do not spell out which party a deal would be made with.

THE NUMBERS

The Left

Labour 50
Greens 6
Progressives 1
Total: 57

The Right

National 48
Act 2
Total: 50

The Rest

New Zealand First 7
Maori Party 4
United Future 3

- additional reporting Tony Gee and Audrey Young

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