Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Harawira, Turia may be last ones standing

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Hone Harawira's relations with his colleagues do not look repairable. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hone Harawira's relations with his colleagues do not look repairable. Photo / Mark Mitchell

If you took any notice of the media hysteria you'd have thought the execution of Hone Harawira was a mere formality this weekend.

The media narrative goes something like this: maverick Maori Party activist from Te Tai Tokerau is a constant troublemaker who can't reconcile himself to his responsibilities as a Member of Parliament. He's a constant irritant to his party leadership and keeps taking potshots at his coalition partner to the point where it's become untenable and he has to go.

His caucus colleagues' patience snapped when Harawira wrote an article they took as criticism of their lack of staunchness and their cosiness with the National Party. They announced they'd lost confidence in him and filed a complaint with their party, triggering a disciplinary process that no one inside the Wellington beltway had any doubt would result in his expulsion.

The party council, at the behest of their co-leaders, set aside $22,000 from their campaign funds to underwrite the engagement of consummate insider lawyer Mai Chen to manage the process and ensure a guilty verdict. According to the party president, they signed Chen because they couldn't trust any Maori lawyers. You can't make this stuff up.

To anyone who knows anything about internal party politics and constitutions, the case against Harawira was never strong enough for any sanction, let alone an expulsion.

Harawira's article was provocative but it was also balanced and stated the obvious. Who doesn't believe that among many Maori Party supporters there is concern they are too close to National?

Who doesn't believe that Harawira has a right to express an opinion that his party should be louder in opposition to GST increases, unemployment rising and income gaps widening under this regime?

The motivation for the complaint seems to be more about Harawira making the other MPs look bad. Officially the charge is that he has "brought the party into disrepute" - dubious grounds for expulsion.

If you read Harawira carefully, all his criticisms are not about policy differences but are based around tactics and strategies. What's the crime in that?

Ironically, what Tariana Turia did when she was in the Labour Party was far worse. As a Cabinet minister, she actively opposed her government's policy on the seabed and foreshore legislation. Was she expelled or even sanctioned? No. In fact, she was granted permission to speak and campaign against it. She eventually resigned to form the Maori Party but Labour never stopped her saying what she thought.

But we know what all this hoo-ha is really about. The problems they raise aren't constitutional. The caucus is just sick of Harawira and wants him to go away. It's all about a political and personal relationship breakdown between the MPs. None are grounds for expulsion, but it is real and it has to be resolved or this party is dead.

Having the co-leaders - two days before the disciplinary hearings - unilaterally sack Harawira from caucus and try to get Parliamentary Services to close his office was just stupid. But it shows the magnitude of the breakdown. The co-leaders turning up to meet the committee privately, hours before Harawira, would make any legal novice know the process is now so compromised no expulsion will stand up. I hope they haven't paid any of Chen's invoices for her advice.

Despite their determination, and to the surprise of the chattering classes, they didn't get their way. There was no execution. I suspect there never will be.

I'll tell you why. Party members who donate their money and spend hours of time building a party will not put their name towards expelling an MP whose crime is that he says things most of them believe themselves. They also know an expulsion will almost certainly trigger the destruction of the party.

Probably, relationships are too broken to repair. However, the current meltdown requires a political negotiation with a political settlement. If they don't, the only survivors after the next election may well be the two protagonists: Harawira and Turia. How surreal would that be?

- Herald on Sunday

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