John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Foreshore fatigue pervades House

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Hone Harawira. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Hone Harawira. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The overwhelming desire of most parties is not to revisit this potential political hornets' nest once the bill is law.Politics

Cracks start to appear as Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill approaches final reading

From their left have come the gripes, the taunts and insults; the charges that they have sold out; the accusations they have failed their people.

From their right have come the derogatory claims that theirs is nothing but a race-based party pushing a race-based agenda courtesy of their being able to freeload on Parliament thanks to New Zealand having race-based seats.

Through it all, "they" - the four remaining Maori Party MPs - have by and large turned the other cheek.

Having thrown out the cuckoo from their nest, they have since largely kept their silence.

In doing so, they have kept their dignity.

However, just as the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill reached its penultimate stage this week in its passage through Parliament, the pressures and strains of recent months began to show.

While they might be more tempted to lash out at Hone Harawira and other Maori critics of the bill, that would only help their former colleague.

Instead, Act's Hillary Calvert became the lightning rod for the release of pent-up tension following her belittling of tikanga (Maori customs and beliefs) as "Alice in Wonderland" stuff which could mean whatever Maori chose it to mean.

Te Ururoa Flavell, the Maori Party whip, briefly got stuck in, only to regret responding to this piece of barely disguised Maori-bashing. Tariana Turia let rip as well, describing Calvert's language as racist.

Calvert's allusion to Lewis Carroll's famous book was apt - but not in ways Calvert intended.

Act's futile filibuster to delay the passage of the new law covering ownership of the foreshore and seabed was so poorly managed that instead of cutting into debating time, voting on the scores of time-wasting amendments put up by Calvert cut into MPs' own time during the dinner-break and subsequently past midnight, long after the House would normally have risen.

If that was Parliament's version of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the House was also treated to Tweedledee and Tweedledum as National and Labour argued the finer points of a solution with which both can live.

The House seemed to be suffering foreshore fatigue. With the exception of Act, next Thursday's third and final reading of the bill cannot come quick enough.

The overwhelming desire of most parties is not to revisit this potential political hornets' nest once the bill is law.

That is one reason why the solution hammered out by National and the Maori Party should endure.

Labour does have strong feelings about some aspects of this landmark bill. Labour is not happy with iwi being allowed to negotiate directly with the Crown. Labour says the foreshore is not a Treaty matter. As customary rights to the foreshore and seabed involve common law rights, all such claims should go to the courts where - unlike iwi-Crown negotiations - anyone affected by the claim is guaranteed a hearing.

National has sought to answer concerns about the secrecy surrounding negotiated settlements by agreeing they will be put before Parliament. But they will be a done-deal before they get anywhere near Parliament.

However, to get the numbers to become the major governing party after November's election, Labour will more than likely need the Maori Party on board.

That would seem to rule out any tinkering with the new foreshore law in any way which restricts the options of iwi. Ditto the Greens would likewise say no to anything that would be to the detriment of iwi. Quite the reverse. Alongside the Maori Party, the Greens might push for an easing of the conditions for the granting of customary title.

The question is whether the parties will have the appetite to rewrite the law. An added complication is that some iwi might be well down the track to establishing customary title under the provisions that will apply once the present bill becomes law. They would have to go back to square one.

Even the Maori Party might well prefer the new status quo be given time to bed-in, regardless of whether the party is propping up a Labour-led or National-led Administration.

The Maori Party knows that no matter what further concessions it might be able to extract from National - almost certainly none - it can never satisfy its critics who demand full and unfettered Maori ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

Harawira's party will promise that. It is simply not credible for the Maori Party to follow suit.

The latter party's strength lies in its achieving what was barely thought possible, rather than wasting its time and resources on the impossible.

Moreover, Harawira is also fast being consigned to irrelevancy. He refuses to work with National. Now Labour has announced it will not work with him.

Phil Goff may have left people - including his own caucus - confused and wondering what happened to his maxim that no one be ruled in or out of post-election deals and accommodations until after the people had decided.

Goff, however, can count. And four is bigger than one.

Better that he choose one or other now. Goff's effective choice of with whom he is prepared to work amounts to the biggest olive branch Labour has thrust in the Maori Party's direction.

It will not go unnoticed. Just as Labour's opposition to the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill won't either.

By this time next week, the bill will be law or very close to it. Public debate will go into hiatus. No longer will Harawira be able to garner attention and publicity solely through his rejection of the legislation now before Parliament.

He will still try to provoke the Maori Party into fighting the battle over who speaks for Maoridom. Turia and company will ignore him.

They can afford to do so. They have already won.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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