The battle in the Maori seats this election has put Labour's Maori MPs in a do or die situation, Mana leader Hone Harawira fighting for a comeback and the Maori Party in a fight for survival. Claire Trevett looks at the odds.

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox is sitting in her office singing Leaving on a Jet Plane.

It is the last day of Parliament and it could also be Fox's last day. "Don't know when I'll be back again," she sings and laughs. "Well, it's true."

One of the paradoxes of Fox's situation is the better the Maori Party does in the Maori seats, the less likely she is to get back into Parliament.

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She is the Maori Party's first List MP and only got in because in 2014 her fellow co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell held his Waiariki seat.

Labour won back the two seats that had been held by former Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. Now, if the Maori Party wins one back she will be out again.

Although Fox is far better known than she was in 2014, few believe she can beat Labour's Meka Whaitiri in Ikaroa-Rawhiti - a seat the Maori Party never held, even at the height of its popularity, thanks to the stranglehold by the late Parekura Horomia, a loyalty Whaitiri inherited.

And if Flavell loses Waiariki to Labour's Tamati Coffey, it's goodnight Maori Party.
Scott Campbell, a communications consultant and former political journalist, says Maori in this election know there is a choice to make.

"Do you want the Maori Party back in Parliament or not - that's the decision Maori are having to make now.

"If you don't vote for the Maori Party, then they're probably going to be gone from Parliament, it's as simple as that."

Maori voters are used to strategic voting. In the past, many split their votes to give Labour the party vote and the Maori Party the candidate vote.

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox in a paddock in Masterton. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox in a paddock in Masterton. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In the last election, the Mana and Maori Party candidates effectively split the vote between them - and it cost them.

This election was also shaping up as a game of chess in the Maori seats, such were strategic manoeuvres.

Under new President Tukoroirangi Morgan, the Maori Party and Mana Party came to a deal not to stand against each other in the Maori seats, to claim some back from Labour.

On paper that should make a difference in seats such as Te Tai Tokerau, Te Tai Hauauru, Te Tai Tonga and Tamaki Makaurau.

King Tuheitia then broke from the apolitical ways of his mother, Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu and endorsed the Maori Party. His spokesman Rahui Papa became Maori Party candidate for Hauraki-Waikato, standing against the King's cousin Nanaia Mahuta.

By way of countering all of that, Labour poached Willie Jackson from the Maori Party where he was seeking the candidacy for Tamaki Makaurau.

Then the Labour Party Maori MPs put themselves in a do or die position, deciding not to stand on the party list in a bid to prevent the Maori Party line that voters could split their vote and get both in because the Labour candidate would get in on the list.

As recently as three weeks ago, Willie Jackson was also agitating for the Greens to stand down their candidates in some seats - such as Tamaki Makaurau - to give the Labour candidate a better chance of keeping it.

There were also fears in Labour that it would lose Te Tai Hauauru - former Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia's old seat - to the Maori Party's popular candidate Howie Tamati.

But that was all before Jacinda Ardern became Labour leader.

Maori broadcaster Ngahuia Wade thinks the Ardern effect, with Kelvin Davis as deputy, could make the difference in at least three seats she otherwise thought were vulnerable to a Maori Party takeover, including Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau.

Her picks for who would win each seat were different from three weeks ago "and may be just as different apopo [tomorrow]".

She also believes Ardern could be enough to help Tamati Coffey win Te Ururoa Flavell's Waiariki seat.

Campbell says the momentum Ardern has given the Labour Party has changed the landscape and seats that were "slipping out of Labour's hands" may now be back with them.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and deputy leader Kelvin Davis at Parliament Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and deputy leader Kelvin Davis at Parliament Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Maria Bargh, the Head of Victoria University's Maori Studies School, is less certain. She points out that in 2014 the Maori vote for Labour held up despite the collapse nationwide, suggesting the leadership of a party was not necessarily a significant factor for Maori voters.

Just over 40 per cent of those on the Maori roll voted for Labour in 2014 compared to 25 per cent nationwide.

A Maori TV poll of Maori voters this week showed Labour on 46.5 per cent support - up on the 41 per cent it got in 2014 - but the Maori Party was also up on 17.5 per cent, perhaps because of the decline of the Mana Party.

Ardern has certainly imbued the Labour team with confidence - Jackson has called off his attempt to get the Greens to stand down to give Labour a clear run.

Now, Jackson says, everything has changed. The Greens plummeted in the polls, Labour risked losing a support partner and could afford to be magnanimous.

"Things changed and obviously we want to see them do reasonably well, so that is something now we are not even looking at because they've been to hell and back haven't they, and they're natural partners for us."

Labour are targeting the clean sweep - which means getting Te Ururoa Flavell's Waiariki seat.

Today Jackson and Labour MPs Nanaia Mahuta and Kelvin Davis are hitting the streets of Rotorua, Whakatane and Tauranga to push Tamati Coffey's campaign along in Waiariki.

It is the last bastion for the Maori Party. Flavell and Coffey are chalk and cheese in terms of age and personality.

Coffey is a showman; Flavell is quieter, has a gentle humour and is self-deprecating and humble. He leaves the fireworks to his co-leader "The Fox".

Bargh says while Coffey appeals to the younger voters and has a strong social media presence, the voting turnout statistics for Waiariki show those aged over 40 are far more likely to vote.

"And Flavell is at every hui, they see his face around the area, all the tangi, the important hui."

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira at his home near Kaitaia in the Far North. Photo / Mike Scott
Mana Party leader Hone Harawira at his home near Kaitaia in the Far North. Photo / Mike Scott

There are also questions about whether Mana leader Hone Harawira can stage a comeback in Te Tai Tokerau, despite losing by just 700 votes last time round. Davis is now at two on the party list, courtesy of his new role as deputy.

It allows Harawira to argue voters should vote for him because Davis will return to Parliament on the list anyway - and Harawira says the more Northland MPs the better.

Harawira was hurt last time around by his association with Kim Dotcom, but was only 743 votes behind Davis. This time he is entering without Maori Party competition - and the deal with the Maori Party could see its supporters go to him.

Campbell thinks it could work and is tipping Harawira to win. "He's done enough up there to get people back on his side, he's got name recognition and he's not connected to the baggage he had last time round."

Others are less convinced. Bargh points to Davis' higher profile and deputy leadership of Labour as well as the work he has done. Wade thinks Harawira has a chance - but still thinks Davis will edge him out.

One of the more intriguing races as a result of the political upheavals in the last three weeks will be the Te Tai Tonga seat, held by Labour's Rino Tirikatene.

Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Photo / Jason Dorday
Former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Photo / Jason Dorday

The electorate covers the South Island and Wellington. It is now the only possibility - a slim possibility - for former Green co-leader Metiria Turei to return to Parliament.

After Turei took herself off the Green Party list and stepped down as co-leader it did not take long for her supporters on social media to start pointing out that if Te Tai Tonga voters believed she had been hard done-by for her admission of welfare fraud as a young solo mother, they should vote for her to get her back in.

Now, Turei says if she won the seat, she would take it and return. "It would be a great honour."

Asked if she would be actively campaigning for the candidate, Turei says the party vote is the most important. "And it would be a real privilege if voters gave me their electorate vote as well."

Bargh says an added bonus in campaigning for the seat would be securing the electorate as insurance for the Green Party in case of a low party vote.

But she doubts Turei can get enough to tilt Tirikatene out. Though there is some dissatisfaction with him, he could be saved by the surge in popularity for Labour, she says.

Ngahuia Wade believes the most likely impact of Turei will be to split the Labour-Green vote and get the Maori Party's Mei Reedy-Taare into Parliament.

The Green Party's Marama Davidson could also split the vote in Tamaki-Makaurau where she got more than 3000 votes last time as a first-time candidate. Davidson is also tipped as a favourite to be the next female co-leader.

That could effect Peeni Henare's ability to hold the seat for Labour against a challenge by Shane Taurima.

Views are split on how much impact King Tuheitia's endorsement of the Maori Party will have in Waikato-Hauraki.

Nanaia Mahuta, the King's cousin, has been in Parliament since 2002 and had a whopping 7700 vote majority in 2014. Between them, the Mana and Maori candidates could only muster 7500 votes.

But last year King Tuheitia said he was not supporting Labour any more because of then-leader Andrew Little's attacks on the Maori Party.

He endorsed the Maori Party - and in particular Rahui Papa, his spokesman and Waikato-Tainui leader who is now the Maori Party's candidate. Tuheitia repeated that endorsement in his annual Koroneihana [Coronation] anniversary speech on Monday.

Mahuta is not taking that endorsement lying down. She says the King's advisors have served him badly and if there is a change in government the Kingitanga movement could regret its entry into partisan politics.

Her rival Rahui Papa says that sounds like a threat. Campbell says the claim is rubbish.
"The Kingitanga was born out of politics and it's a political movement. It was there to try and influence what was happening with the Crown and Wellington. It was part of politics and always will be."

He still picks Mahuta to win, but says the endorsement will make it harder for followers to choose.

Wade also says it puts the King's reputation at risk if Papa does not win.

"Can a Princess usurp a King? This is a class war. Will the King abdicate if the Princess wins?"

Beyond the personalities and the politics, are the issues that could affect the vote.

Labour has been railing against the Te Ture Whenua (Maori land reforms) Bill, which Flavell has put on hold at least until after the election rather than push it through under urgency.

Wade points to Labour's decision to charge royalties for commercial water use, which National has argued equates to asserting ownership rights and is a change from the previous consensus that nobody owns water. Wade says the water issue could turn out to be as big as the Foreshore and Seabed.

"Labour is campaigning that 'everyone owns water' which is double-speak for the claim that government (the Crown) owns water and can therefore charge a royalty on farmers use of water, including Maori farmers."

Mahuta is reluctant to put too much store in relying on Ardern's appeal alone. She says Ardern and Davis have been good for the party.

"But by and large people will go to the polls this time round on the bread and butter issues - cost of living, housing, secure jobs, education and opportunity for our young kids. Those will always be the things our core vote will look at in the booth."

Ironically, Ardern's rise may also help the Maori Party. She has not been as quick as her predecessor to dismiss the Maori Party as a coalition option. Little raised eyebrows when he proclaimed they were "not kaupapa Maori" and consigned them to the back of the cab rank.

Senior Labour MPs Davis and Mahuta are also less combative about a future government, saying simply that will be up to the voters.

For the past three terms there was no choice of a Labour Government and the Maori Party went with National rather than opt for the cross-benches. That makes it easy to seed the line they will side with National again.

But the Maori Party has started to send signals that if it has a choice, it will go with Labour.

Co-leader Marama Fox says the party has always left it up to the wider membership to decide what the party should do.

She says it is more than likely members would opt for Labour over National.
Those signals may be enough to reassure Maori voters that a Labour-Maori government is a possibility - and vote to ensure the Maori Party survives.

As Campbell says, anybody will do a deal if there is a ministerial car to drive them away from the hui.

They pick it:

Te Tai Tokerau: held by Labour's Kelvin Davis

Maria Bargh: Kelvin Davis

Scott Campbell: Hone Harawira

Ngahuia Wade: Kelvin Davis

Tamaki Makaurau - held by Labour's Peeni Henare
Maria Bargh: Peeni Henare
Scott Campbell: Peeni Henare
Ngahuia Wade: Peeni Henare

Hauraki-Waikato - held by Labour's Nanaia Mahuta
Maria Bargh: Nanaia Mahuta
Scott Campbell: Nanaia Mahuta
Ngahuia Wade: Nanaia Mahuta

Ikaroa-Rawhiti: held by Labour's Meka Whaitiri
Maria Bargh: Meka Whaitiri
Scott Campbell: Meka Whaitiri
Ngahuia Wade: Meka Whaitiri

Waiariki: held by Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell
Maria Bargh: Te Ururoa Flavell
Scott Campbell: Te Ururoa Flavell
Ngahuia Wade: Tamati Coffey

Te Tai Hauauru: held by Labour's Adrian Rurawhe
Maria Bargh: Adrian Rurawhe
Scott Campbell: Howie Tamati
Ngahuia Wade: Adrian Rurawhe

Te Tai Tonga: held by Labour's Rino Tirikatene
Maria Bargh: Rino Tirikatene
Scott Campbell: Rino Tirikatene
Ngahuia Wade: Mei Taare-Reedy