The annual political kick off at Ratana Pa is always more pointed in election year, and this year was no exception. Last week, centre and left parties jostled for position with Maori voters, who will probably play a central role in deciding the government later this year.
For Andrew Little and Labour the position is primarily a defensive one. Having wrested nearly all of the Maori seats back from Maori-based parties at the last election, Labour now clearly faces a resurgent challenge from the re-combined Maori and Mana parties.
Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell has proclaimed the traditional Ratana-Labour relationship as "finished" in the face of a "new unified Maori movement" - see Mihingarangi Forbes' Flavell: 'Times have moved on' from historic Rātana-Labour.
This was hotly refuted by Andrew Little, who attacked the Maori Party as having been "shackled to the National Party" and failing to deliver for Maori because of that relationship. Nonetheless, it's clear Labour is rattled by the new threat in the Maori seats. As Jo Moir points out, "After all, Little wouldn't be so fired up by the Maori Party's attacks if he was confident his own MPs could retain their six seats" - see: Prime Minister's effort to learn Te Reo well received at Ratana.
Why Labour should be worried in the Maori seats
Leaving the rhetoric aside, even a quick look at the votes in the Maori seats at the last election shows why Labour should be worried. Martyn Bradbury goes through the votes in Understanding Maori Party + MANA movement in 2017 and points out that in only three of the seven seats would Labour have any sort of paper majority against a combined Mana and Maori Party vote.
On top of this, there are some additional factors that Labour Maori MPs are up against. In 2014 there was much acrimony between the Mana and Maori parties, which would have turned off many Maori voters. The cooperation between Hone Harawira and the Maori Party at Ratana shows this is unlikely to be a problem for them in 2017.
Second, the momentum that a unified Maori political slate would have is likely to attract some very high profile candidates. With Kelvin Davis as the exception, none of the Labour Maori MPs have had a particularly high profile or can point to notable achievements in their parliamentary career.
Even in Davis' case, with only a few hundred votes buffer, and up against an equally high profile challenger in Harawira, it won't take a big change to tip the balance in Te Tai Tokerau. Even a portion of the Maori Party's votes added to Harawira's tally would be more than enough.
There was speculation that Nanaia Mahuta - the Labour Maori MP who should be safest on paper - would not stand again. She has now confirmed she will stand, but King Tuheitia's endorsement of the Maori Party has, according to Jo Moir, left her somewhat "out in the cold" - see: Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta shakes off King's criticisms and will stand in Hauraki-Waikato, and Labour leader Andrew Little has accused the Maori Party of doing nothing for their people.
Labour may be going out of their way to cement a closer relationship with the Greens this year, but when it comes to the Maori seats the Greens look to be adding to their difficulties. The Green candidates in the Maori seats of Ikaroa Rawhiti, Te Tai Hauauru, Tamaki Makaurau and Te Tai Tonga made a strong showing in 2014, and it is reasonable to assume that the closer the Labour-Green relationship, the more likely it is that Green candidates will bleed vital electorate votes from Labour rather than the Maori Party. There has been much discussion about deals in seats like Ohariu, but it is in the Maori seats where the Greens spoiler role could be strongest.
Why Labour might benefit from the resurgent Maori parties
While Labour does not want to lose the Maori seats, they are in a conundrum when it comes to getting back into government. Because the party vote rather than electorate seats won determines how many MPs they get, winning the Maori seats doesn't add to the number of MPs they have to form a government - it only prevents those seats being used to support National.
In reality, of course, the Maori Party has not held the balance of power. National could have governed over the last nine years without them.
In 2017 however, if the Maori Party was to win back a number of seats, they could well hold the balance of power. But Little's claim that they would remain "shackled" to National is un-convincing for two reasons.
First, the Maori Party needs - and wants - to establish itself as a centre party. And after nine years of supporting National, the party has a very strong imperative to show they can work with other parties - Labour in particular. Their ongoing support of National has nearly destroyed them, and they will be only too aware that another three years could easily finish them off.
This is particularly true, given the other factor: Hone Harawira. At Ratana Isaac Davison reported Andrew Little dismisses Mana Movement as 'irrelevant'. In reality, Mana could play a crucial role in helping Little become Prime Minister.
The Maori Party's cooperative relationship with Harawira - with a very good chance that he will be returned to Parliament - will add additional pressure not to sign up again with National if they have a choice. While it's possible that Harawira and the Maori Party could go in separate directions when it comes to coalition formation, if the Maori Party has helped Harawira back into Parliament they may have resurrected their own executioner.
For the last nine years the Maori Party has been able to argue that their choices have been between government or opposition. It would be very risky to put National back into power when a Labour-led government is possible, having given Harawira back his parliamentary pulpit for the next three years.
New high-profile Maori Party MPs attracted by the cooperation with Mana are also likely to drive the Maori Party to the left and will have the heft required to make it happen. Willie Jackson, in particular, is the likely candidate to watch out for in Tamaki Makaurau - and in winning the seat as a Maori Party candidate, this former Alliance MP is hardly going to be comfortable going into government with National, especially if there is a real choice.
With National's polling likely to fall without John Key, for the first time in many years, Labour may actually have another option for government outside of an unwieldy coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First.
Five or six Maori seats, in addition to Labour and the Greens party vote, could be enough to form a government in a post-Key political environment. Even if it didn't eventuate, just having that coalition option as a possibility would strengthen Labour's hand with Winston Peters, who otherwise will hold the whip hand when it comes to post-election negotiations.
Of course Andrew Little has no choice but to support his Maori MPs, and it may be politically astute to distance Labour from the Maori Party and Harawira before the election. But a ruthless examination of Labour's path to government would suggest that losing the Maori seats would not necessarily be a disaster. While Little's comments have been interpreted as "all but" ruling out working with the Maori party, it would be foolish to damage the relationship and re-kindle the bitterness that existed when Tariana Turia was leader. It's a delicate MMP balancing act that requires party leaders to look beyond the individual and factional interests of their MPs in order to secure the treasury benches.