Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Key dodges Maori Party bullet over Kermadecs

Delay on ocean sanctuary the price of saving partnership deal.
Prime Minister John Key announcing the overhaul of family violence laws. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key announcing the overhaul of family violence laws. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Governments are a bit like used cars. They begin shiny and new with that new car smell.
Over the years, their tyres wear thin, the kilometres stack up and they require a bit of panelbeating. They need regular servicing.

A look back to 2008 and 2009 shows a first-term National Government brimming with new car smell.

It had many ideas. Some were barking mad or mere stunts, but they were fresh ideas nonetheless.

Even Prime Minister John Key's international trips had a certain joie de vivre about them. He took hip-hop bands and sports stars with him - Michael Jones and Inga the Winger on his Pacific tour and Stephen Fleming to India.

National was full of 'elegant solutions' and ready to move if public opinion demanded it.

Key was a risk-taker. He took risks with policies and with people and backed his own judgment. One of those risks was the Maori Party.

It has needed less servicing than many expected to keep it running.

But when an ominous clunking started under the bonnet this week, so did alarm that National was about to jettison a passenger: the Maori Party.

The clunking was caused by calls for the Maori Party to walk out on National over the failure to get a deal on the Kermadec Marine Sanctuary between the Government and Te Ohu Kaimoana - the Maori Fisheries Commission.

It was loud enough to prompt Key himself to step in. Key's phone call to Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell on Wednesday came just as Flavell was walking out of his office to front to the media.

That phone call took things "from defcon five to defcon four" as one Maori Party person put it.

Instead of announcing the Maori Party would talk to its members about whether to walk out, Flavell and Marama Fox ended up announcing further talks with the Government.

At the same time Key announced the legisation would be delayed and there was "zero chance" of the Maori Party leaving.

Translation: if a deal does not happen nor does the sanctuary.

It was quite the change in tune from the Monday when Key was resolute: there would be no compensation, there was "no intention" of backing away from the marine sanctuary, and while there might be 'small' changes at the margins the 'no take, no mining' stand was absolute.

By Wednesday all those noes had turned into a delay to the legislation.

The no-take for eternity was now a 'gold standard' but Key would settle for a silver or bronze if that was what it took.

Key's plan to save the ocean had been shelved to save his own bacon. The reason his bacon was under threat was self-inflicted.

But it is no small thing Key has slipped it to the back of the stove while he tries to sort out the problem.

In theory he could simply push it through - he has the numbers - and take the court action and walkouts as they happen.

He would probably be on the right side of wider public opinion and it would spare his blushes internationally after making such a song and dance about announcing it.

It did not escape notice that even as Key announced the delay, a video screened at the US-hosted Our Ocean conference featuring Key making the announcement back in 2015.

But it was more about politics rather than fish or Treaty rights.

Key would still be able to get a majority without the Maori Party but has gauged the marine sanctuary is not worth blowing up his Government over.

It is particularly not worth that when there is a year to go before an election in which he wants to win a fourth term.

If a compromise or a delay to a Kermadec marine sanctuary - even beyond the next election - is the price of holding his government together to get that fourth term, Key is willing to pay it.

The possibility is an agreement that leaves the fishing rights intact but sets out an iwi agreement not to fish in the area until a review of the status of the sanctuary in 10 years, as Te Ohu Kaimoana wants, or 25 years.

That puts the future of the sanctuary in the hands of a future Parliament.

It is not ideal, but political reality suggests it is unlikely the sanctuary status would be lifted.

Labour will secretly be hoping National can resolve it rather than leave it to them, not least because of the foreshore and seabed millstone about its own neck.

The National Party of old might have leapt upon what is happening over the Kermadecs for another iwi/kiwi moment, as it did with the foreshore and seabed back in 2005.

Key's rapid move to smooth troubled waters this week rather than try to surf them was gratifying in that respect.

But if that deal can not be reached, Key has nothing to lose by putting it on hold. A nasty scrap with Maori is not what he needs heading into 2017.

The Kermadecs stoush overshadowed what was otherwise a very good week for National.

It was having a reprieve from the relentless headlines about housing, it unveiled big moves in core bread and butter areas this week: family violence, Auckland transport, a housing development in Northcote.

Then came the release of figures showing 3.6 per cent growth in GDP over the past year.

National's car may have blown its head gasket on occasion, it may well be battered and need more than a bit of tyre blacking and 'new car' scented spray spritzed about.

But a Colmar Brunton poll this week showed voters may well not yet be ready to trade it in for Labour.

Labour leader Andrew Little was quick to cry the poll was "bogus" and countered with Labour's own poll which had a much more generous outlook for Labour.

Whoever's poll is right, the One News poll does highlight two stark problems for Labour.

The very same poll showed an increase in concern about housing and imigration - the issues Labour claimed it was gaining votes from. The poll showed Labour was not capitalising from that.

The second problem was NZ First and the Greens were both safely above 10 per cent. That would mean Labour's coalition partners combined were almost the same size as the Labour Party itself.

To swap analogies (why not?) from used cars to the familiar tail wagging the dog one, under MMP voters tend to like their dogs to have as tiny a tail as possible to ensure stable government.

National has three support partners but they are so small they are more like fleas in the general area of a tail.

As things stand, the Labour dog will need both NZ First and the Greens as tails. If Labour polls less than the mid 30s, that is akin to two German Shepherd tails thrashing in opposite directions on the rear end of a pug.

Physics dictates that would not end well for the pug. And as Scotty would say, 'ye cannae change the law of physics."

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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