The Labour Party has just dodged a bullet. A threat to its hold on six Maori seats was building, but in poaching Willie Jackson from the Maori Party, in one fell swoop a crisis has been averted.
Maori politics continues to be one of the most interesting elements of New Zealand politics. The twists and turns and dynamics of the Maori electorates are fascinating and important. In fact, they could have a big impact on who governs New Zealand - as I've pointed out in previous columns - see: Time to take the Maori parties more seriously and Labour's balancing act with Mana-Maori.
The looming game-changer in Maori politics has been the fledgling electoral alliance between the Mana and Maori parties. This had the possibility of producing a major change in the Maori electorates, whereby Hone Harawira would win back Te Tai Tokerau off Labour's Kelvin Davis, and other Labour-held Maori seats would be taken by the Maori Party. Labour was particularly vulnerable in Tamaki Makaurau, Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Te Tai Hauauru.
But the Labour Party has now effectively killed off this emerging threat.
The poaching of Willie Jackson from the Maori Party was a deft strategic move by Labour. Jackson had previously been set to stand for the Maori Party in the Auckland seat of Tamaki Makaurau, which he would have likely taken off Labour's Peeni Henare this year.
For details of Andrew Little's controversial poaching of Jackson, see the two-minute TVNZ video by Andrea Vance, which focuses on the politician's "waka-jumping" background, as well as reaction within Labour to Jackson joining the party: Former Labour Party MP threatens to resign life membership over 'waka jumper' Willie Jackson. It seems that Jackson and Little are set to announce the new candidacy at Waitangi on Sunday (therefore beating Shane Jones' Waitangi Day New Zealand First announcement).
The Mana and Maori parties will struggle to survive
Jackson's involvement in the Maori Party was also set to bolster the Maori-Mana alliance, given that he's a close friend of Hone Harawira, and his high-profile involvement with the Maori Party would have injected a new dynamism and strength into a party needing revival. His candidacy would have given momentum to those within Maoridom who seek to have an independent Maori-based political party.
Hence, Jackson's Labour candidacy is a turning point for both this year's election and the trajectory of Maori politics. The Mana and Maori parties will now struggle to survive, given one of their biggest potential assets will now be used as a weapon against them. Jackson will be campaigning directly to stop those Maori-based parties from gaining ground, denying them a chance to revive and prosper.
So whereas Jackson might have assisted, and even helped fund Hone Harawira's campaign in the north, he'll now be helping Kelvin Davis defeat Harawira. There must now be a chance that Harawira will pull the plug on his attempted comeback.
Unsurprisingly, Harawira isn't impressed by the Jackson development, with Waatea News reporting him as saying it will be bad for the revival of the Maori political parties: "I like Willie but I think in terms of the Maori revival, I don't think this is going to advance that. If the rumours are true he will be accepting a high list placing in Labour so he won't have to wallow around in the electoral fuss, so for all of those Labour Party Maori MPs who think working hard will get you to the top, clearly not" - see: Jackson jump shock for loyal MPs.
This also makes it less likely that the Maori Party will play a strong role in any post-election coalition. Even with Te Ururoa Flavell easily retaining his Waiariki electorate, the party is likely to be reduced to just his one seat in Parliament. And with Winston Peters indicating his strong aversion to being in any government with the Maori Party, it seems that any National or Labour-led government with Peters will have to exclude Flavell.
Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury says that Jackson's switch "is terrible news for an independent political Maori voice" - see: Willie Jackson to Labour = major loss for Maori Party.
Bradbury elaborates: "The Maori Party are now in deep trouble if Willie Jackson has walked. Jackson represents the urban Maori who have been left behind by the Government's myopic focus on corporate Iwi and if the Maori Party hierarchy couldn't provide Jackson with the respect and positioning he deserved, this is a terrible blunder. It seems that Te Ururoa Flavell's stubbornness and a promise to Tariana Turia to never support Labour are the main stumbling blocks."
A commenter on The Standard blog says: "Jackson coming on board would be a death blow to the Maori Party. He controls the Maori Party in Auckland and the North, with a majority of the Maori Party's members being his backers who he signed up to the party. Willy has massive resources and networks throughout Maoridom. He was central to Tuku's strategy. This is huge and could be the difference between Labour losing a couple of Maori seats or wiping the Maori Party out. If the election is close (which it should be) this savvy move by Little could be the thing that wins it" - see the comments section of O'Connor and Jackson for Labour.
Jackson's political future and strengths
Jackson's involvement in Labour could also be something of a game changer for that party. No doubt it will further Labour's attempt to be a broader party - as discussed in my previous column: Can the Labour Party renew itself as a broad church?.
In particular, Jackson will be an asset in his ability to reach out to those parts of the urban working class - especially Maori - that Labour's more middle class liberal MPs have been simply unable to speak to. The so-called "missing million" or even "Waitakere Man" are likely to be more in tune with Jackson's more populist and class-oriented style of politics and communication style.
Of course Jackson also has a Maori nationalist element to his politics. But this will be kept in check by his involvement in Labour. Instead he'll be more likely to channel his more working class and trade union background. In a sense he has the potential to be more of a Shane Jones or even leftwing Trump style of politician, which could be crucial for Labour.
Jackson's trade union background will, in fact, help him in his relationship with Andrew Little. Their shared union background might help propel him to effectively become the senior Maori politician inside Labour - and this is likely to occur before he's even elected. And, no doubt he would have discussed being the Minister of Maori Development in a future Labour-led government.
Certainly Jackson's strong connections with media and Maoridom will be useful for Labour, and could help him play a key role in Labour's Maori seats campaign this year. As Newshub's Anna Bracewell-Worrall says: "As well as hosting a day-time show on RadioLive, Jackson is active in the Maori broadcasting community, chairing dozens of iwi radio stations, hosting at Radio Waatea, and presenting on TV show Marae. It was on Marae in December that he let viewers know he was returning to politics" - see: Willie Jackson confirms return to politics - but who for?.
Question remain about Jackson in the Labour Party
The surprise arrival of Jackson near the top of the Labour Party will be of concern to many in Labour. And there will be plenty of questions about how well the former Alliance MP will fit in.
There has, already, been some negativity from inside. For example, according to TVNZ's Eruera Rerekura, "former Labour MP Dover Samuels told Te Karere that he doesn't support Mr Jackson boarding the Labour 'waka' and nor does he have an appetite for the party's partnership with the Green Party. He even went on further to say that he doubts Labour will win this year's election" - see: Willie Jackson expected to stand for Labour. See also TVNZ's 'Willie Jackson would have plenty to offer Labour' - Andrew Little admits speaking with broadcaster, in which Samuels commits to resign his life membership of Labour if Jackson is let in.
Current Maori MPs in Labour might be expected to be very unhappy about the deal. But Labour's Peeni Henare in Tamaki Makaurau will be extremely relieved not to be facing off against Jackson - a battle he would be unlikely to win. Instead Jackson will be on his side, and bringing his immense South Auckland resources into Labour's campaign to hold the seat.
Likewise, in Te Tai Tokerau, Davis will be particularly pleased with Jackson's recruitment, as it will help him cement his hold on his electorate. Davis therefore won't be bothered by losing the chance of a high list placing to Jackson.
Davis - Labour's highest ranking Maori MP - has actually been entirely positive in his reaction to the news about Jackson. Davis told Jo Moir: "Willie has great contacts in the media, he's opinionated, outspoken, pro-Maori. He's got appeal to the wider community - he's funny - and people know where they stand with Willie" - see: Labour 'welcome to him' - Maori Party President waves goodbye to Willie Jackson.
Elsewhere in the media, Davis has been equally effusive about Jackson: "He's got profile, he's got charisma. He's got such pro-Maori ideas. I think it's fantastic. And he's a leftie. I'm really quite excited by it... It's great news. I think we need to bring in outstanding candidates and they need to be assured of a decent place. This is the way we'll show Maoridom we are serious about Maori issues, by bringing in more Maori on the list" - see Claire Trevett's Davis 'excited' as Jackson joins Labour.
But Trevett reports the potential problems: "A high list ranking for Jackson could upset other Labour MPs and Maori candidates however. The party is aiming to get at least 50 per cent women in its caucus after this year's election, which means there are very few list places for men. As well as Labour leader Andrew Little, Trevor Mallard, who is hoping to be Speaker if Labour is in Government, and David Parker are reliant on the list to return to Parliament. Promising Maori candidates such as Willow-Jean Prime are also likely to need the list to get into Parliament."
Given that it is Andrew Little who is personally bringing Jackson into the party, any promises of a high list placing can surely be delivered. But there will be plenty of other political issues that could cause tensions, such as Jackson's high profile championing of partnership schools.
Jackson's very close friendship with John Tamihere will also not sit well with some within Labour. The ex-Cabinet minister will, no doubt, be in the mix somewhere. But he, too, can bring significant resources to Labour - especially in terms of his role and contacts in West Auckland.
Finally, for an analysis of what Jackson's move means for the bigger picture of Maori and left politics see John Moore's blog post, Game over for kaupapa Maori parties. He argues that Jackson's jump to Labour will give the party a much better chance of tapping into disenfranchised Maori, which could be a game changer for the whole 2017 election outcome.