Audrey Young

Political editor Audrey Young blogs from Parliament

Audrey Young: Electric start to Maori Party conference

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Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. File photo / Mark Mitchell

Tariana Turia made a plea to Maori Party conference delegates in Hastings late last night to start trusting each other and to focus on what they could do, not to focus on what they couldn't do and what caused them disunity.

The exasperated co-leader was making an intervention during a protracted debate - lasting at least an hour - about how and when they should elect the party's male vice-president.

She was imploring them to make a decision last night after some suggested they needed more time to take nominations back to their electorates and to have more hui.

It cost a lot of money to have hui, and then people changed their mind at the next hui.

"I think we have lost trust in each other," she said. They used to have it but somewhere along they had lost it and "I feel quite devastated actually."

By the time the conference's first session adjourned at 11 pm, they had ignored her advice and decided to delay a decision until the next national council meeting.

It was only one part of quite an electric start to the conference - with not a mention yet of the foreshore and seabed repeal or caucus rebel Hone Harawira. That comes today.

Turia wept as the founding president Professor Whatarangi Winiata, a unifying force, bade his farewells after seven years in the job. His speech was tinged with caution about the potential risk of disunity and appeared aimed more at the caucus and Harawira.

His parting gift to the party was not only his president's report but a special paper he had written titled "Maori Management of Tino Rangatiratanga."

The party elected a new president, Pem Bird, of Murupara and he immediately got offside with many in the audience.

He made a 20 minute impromtu speech setting out his vision for making education the top priority for mokopuna but, in his delivery, implied that no one else had ever fought for it before.

Several elderly members of the audience stood up and challenged him over it.

Bird was less contentious when he said he wanted to run a waananga before the year's end to look to longterm strategy, and election year plans, and to assess the pros and cons of the its coalition arrangement with National.

Bird beat Mereana Pitman, a former contender the party's Ikaroa Rawhiti candidacy last election. Before the vote, she told the conference that one of the reasons she was standing was to support Hone Harawira - who is campaigning against his colleague's deal on the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

She also said she did not trust Prime Minister John Key and did not support the Maori Party's coalition with National but that she would meet with and work with Key for the sake of the party.

Before the vote was taken - each of the seven electorates cast one vote - the news media were asked to leave. But not before hell broke loose when lawyer Annette Sykes raised procedural questions about the election and the debate due today on whether there should be male and female co-presidents.

She was ordered to sit down by the presiding chair, vice-president Heta Kingston, a now retired judge whose decision on the Ngati Apa foreshore and seabed claim in the Maori Land Court led to the Court of Appeal decision which led to the Foreshore and Seabed Act, which led to the Maori Party.

And if the ex judge didn't know it before, he knows now that it is not a good idea to order Annette Sykes to sit down and shut up.

If the new president can maintain discipline, over himself as much as the conference, it promises to be an even more interesting day today with leaders' speeches and remits to be debated.

And it will be an opportunity to assess whether what went on last night was an insignifcant flare up in the scheme of things or the sign of serious trouble in the party.

The one thing that can said about the Maori Party is that they acknowledge they have tensions and they allow the news media in to see most parts of their conferencewarts and all - unlike National which has very stage managed events.

Winiata touched on the party's troubles with Harawiria in his final report - without naming him: " We are still in search of the recipe to be a united force in Parliament.Yet still together we are despite the prediction we would implode, break up from within was our destiny it was said. Well we haven't.

"As a political party this has not been achieved with ease. Not at all. We've been to the edge, but not over it; we've been to the threshold but not beyond it.

"We've not passed the point of no return. We've been close and because we don't have a prescription to protect us in this area, our history and the risks could be repeated," he said.

"These experiences have not been easy to take.

"Those in the engine room, our four and then five Members of Parliament, have felt most of the heat.

"Frequent tests of their kotahitanga, from the mild to the very intense, have been many.

"And they are regular, moreover, they do not show signs of subsiding despite regular meetings in the caucus and on retreats."

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