Rawiri Taonu: Harawira's Mana a wildcard for Maori and Labour parties

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Hone Harawira. Photo / Getty Images
Hone Harawira. Photo / Getty Images

Leaders can remain hopeful as a reversal in the polls is still possible, writes Rawiri Taonui, Professor of Indigenous Studies at AUT University.

The Maori and Labour Parties are losing votes to the Mana Party. The latest Marae Investigates Digipoll survey shows the Maori Party has lost 20 per cent of its party votes since January and 15 per cent of electorate votes across the seven Maori seats since the 2008 election.

The Maori Party does not have to push the panic button just yet, as its large 2008 election majorities provide a significant buffer. In a marked reversal, it can also be buoyed by 55 per cent support on the foreshore and seabed issue, with 58 per cent saying it represents Maori well and a 69 per cent endorsement for its politics of compromise with National.

This improvement owes much to Don Brash's re-emergence. Maori and Pakeha voters are rejecting his separatist anti-Maori rhetoric. For all its ups and downs, many see the relationship with National as stable.

The Maori Party has also been wise. Pita Sharples has conceded that the Hone Harawira affair could have been handled better and that the party sometimes lost touch with Maori constituents. Appeasement goes a long way, although one notes it was Harawira's comment in a newspaper on the latter issue which first got him into trouble.

Labour has lost 13 per cent of its party vote but is steady in the electorates, just 1 per cent lower on average than in 2008.

Labour lead Te Tai Tokerau 30 to 27 per cent over Mana. Harawira has work to do but remains secure. This is a landline telephone poll; many of his mainly poor constituents rely on pre-paid mobiles. A pre-byelection Native Affairs poll underestimated Harawira's support by 9 per cent. Highly articulate Waihori Shorthand has increased Maori Party support by 16 per cent with an effective e-campaign employing video, but risks exaggerating his acting abilities.

Mana needs to raise a low 8.5 per cent party vote. If Harawira holds the north, and it capitalises on some promising signals from Pakeha voters, it could secure one to two list MPs.

It has not capitalised on the momentum gained from the Te Tai Tokerau byelection, averaging about 20 per cent in the electorate vote in five Maori seats.

Party organiser Matt McCarten has been unwell and leader Harawira has been spread too thinly across the country.

Mana has negligible support in Tariana Turia's Te Tai Hauauru and Te Tai Tonga.

The hardworking Te Tai Tonga incumbent, Maori Party MP Rahui Katene, trails Labour's Te Rino Tirikatene.

Labour has not "come through the middle" as some have feared.

Rather, Mana and the Maori Party have simply lost constituents - about 30 to 60 per cent of mainly North Island urban Maori may have left Christchurch since the earthquakes.

Tirikatene also has mana whenua heritage on his side. He is Ngai Tahu, as is Katene, but his grandfather, Eruera Tirikatene, was the first Ratana Labour MP and his aunty, Dame Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, was Maoridom's longest-serving female MP and the first Maori woman Cabinet minister.

The 2005 election was about the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the 2008 election about aspirations for an independent Maori Party clean-sweeping the seven Maori seats. Maori have given up on that dream.

Mana whenua will therefore dictate the outcomes in at least six electorates, this time supporting the candidates they think best represent their interests, regardless of which party they come from.

Tribes will also back their own among those who fought out the Mana-Maori Party split. Both factors should see the sitting MPs - Parekura Horomia, Nanaia Mahuta, Tariana Turia, Te Ururoa Flavell and Harawira - return to Parliament.

The wild card is that the Digipoll survey has preceded the announcing of several Mana candidates. Maori voters prefer names and faces. Expect some figures to change as candidates are confirmed.

Mana's Annette Sykes faces an uphill battle overhauling a 40-point gap to Flavell sitting on 59.3 per cent in Waiariki.

Sykes is highly intelligent and hugely experienced in litigation and Waitangi Tribunal proceedings. Iwi politics may be against her.

She is also assertive, which conservative traditionalists might rail against.

Sykes would have been a better selection in Auckland. Sharples has significant support; however, there is potential volatility.

Urban Maori make up 80 per cent of the population so mana whenua will be less influential. Sykes would also be a point of difference against two high-profile male candidates and would pull in more Maori women votes.

Maori women give 20 per cent more party votes and 10 per cent more electorate votes than Maori men to Labour and the Maori Party.

An April two-horse poll had Sharples 46 to 42 per cent over Shane Jones; a later Sharples versus Willie Jackson (who has since withdrawn) contest was rated 52 to 37.

The right Mana candidate will throw Auckland wide open.

Some want the Maori Party and Mana to do deals to prevent Labour "coming through the middle". A prudent party might prioritise some seats over others; however, this year has demonstrated such deals won't be honoured.

Backroom deals will also undermine the right of Maori voters to choose. Maori voters are especially strategic. The three main parties in the Maori electorates say they stand for distinctively different and important principles. Let the mana of the voters decide their fate.

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