Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: A shakeup looms in Maori politics

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Meka Whaitiri. Photo / APN
Meka Whaitiri. Photo / APN

Saturday's Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election result has surely focused the minds of those involved in the bitter divide between the Mana and Maori parties.

The most significant outcome of the by-election is that a new 'Mana Maori Party' is a much more distinct possibility than ever before. As John Armstrong writes today, it is apparent that 'the Maori Party and Mana are locked together in what amounts to a suicide pact' and this can only be averted by some kind of merger or alliance - see: Little joy for Labour, worse news for Maori parties. Armstrong says that 'the survival of some kind of political force representing Maori in Parliament is ultimately at stake'.

There are two by-election outcomes that should have produced this clarity for the Mana and Maori parties: 1) Mana beat the Maori Party into third place, potentially cementing in voters minds that Hone Harawira's party is now the 'true' or pre-eminent indigenous party; and 2) as Armstrong puts it, 'the combined vote of Mana and the Maori Party was larger than Labour's total. All that the two Maori parties achieved in Ikaroa-Rawhiti was to split the non-Labour vote to neither's advantage'. These factors might now be enough to force Pita Sharples, Tariana Turia and Te Ururoa Flavell back to the negotiating table with Hone Harawira.

There are a number of Maori voices now talking up a Mana Maori merger.

Blogger Morgan Godfery says that 'The message is clear: Mana and the Maori Party must unite. If not, Labour will sweep the Maori seats by 2017. When the tino rangatiratanga vote peels left and right, Labour gallops up the middle' - see: The Ikaroa-Rawhiti breakdown. Unity can be a powerful force in Maoridom, and Godfery says 'If the Maori Party wants to restore kotahitanga [unity] then conciliation with Mana is a must'.

Mana's Matt McCarten also appears to be pushing for reunification, according to Hamish Rutherford's Sharples defends party amid taunts: 'Matt McCarten, the trade unionist and former Alliance Party president, says senior figures in the Maori Party had told him in the weeks leading up to the contest that if Mr Raihania finished third, they would push for reconciliation with Mana'. And Mana's by-election candidate Te Hamua Nikora is enthusiastic according to Claire Trevett and Yvonne Tahana, who report that 'He said Mana and the Maori Party needed to talk about the future'. Furthermore, he is quoted as saying, 'People in the electorate, just talking to normal grassroots people they didn't like to have to decide between Mana and Maori. They wanted us to roll together and I think that would be a beautiful thing' - see: Labour's Meka Whaitiri wins Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election.

Interestingly, one of the strongest voices in favour of Mana and Maori working together is the Maori Party's by-election candidate Na Raihania. According to Claire Trevett, Raihania 'will push for his party to swallow its pride and agree with the Mana Party not to battle each other in some of the Maori seats. Mr Raihania said the by-election meant the party had to take a hard look at itself and see if accommodations could be reached in the Maori seats.

He intended to argue for the change in position at the party's annual conference in a fortnight, and believed the party presidents and councils should hold those talks rather than the party leaders because of the personal acrimony following Mr Harawira's split with the party' - see: Winner relieved with 42pc of vote.

But could a reunification really happen? Not likely, according to a blogpost at The Standard: Mana Maori?. The major roadblock to any sort of agreement or merger is Te Ururoa Flavell. Certainly Flavell has spoken out against working closer with Harawira and Mana. In terms of a merger, he said in the weekend that 'we parted ways, and we parted ways for good reasons'. Sharples, too, has been unenthusiastic.

So on first appearances it seems unlikely. Yet as the narrative deepens about the Mana Party having usurped the Maori Party, the notion wlll become more convincing and Flavell and Sharples could come to see that their continued political survival depends on working with Harawira.

It is clear that Mana has at least replaced the Maori Party as the party of 'poor Maori'. Looking at the polling booth results from the by-election, Mana received its strongest votes in the poorer working class suburbs - such as Kaiti in Gisborne, and Flaxmere and Camberley in Hastings.

As Peter Wilson argues, 'Mana has taken over as the voice of disadvantaged Maori. While Turia has been engrossed with her Whanau Ora welfare delivery scheme and Sharples has taken a back seat in Parliament, Harawira has made the running with his fiery condemnation of government policies and grandiose ideas for getting Maori into homes and jobs' - see Is the Maori Party past its use-by date?. Wilson also says that 'Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, are barely visible in parliament' and suggests the party may struggle to retain any of its three seats at the next election.

Andrew Geddis also raises questions about the ongoing viability of the Maori Party in his by-election commentary, saying 'the "protest" or "anti-establishment" vote is flowing to Mana, while the "pragmatic" or "work inside the system" vote is pretty much staying with Labour. And so the Maori Party are being frozen in the middle - which spells bad news come 2014. Because not only is it looking increasingly unlikely that there will be another Maori seat for them to contest at that election, but if they can't make headway in Ikaroa-Rawhiti in a "blank-slate" situation where they run the only established candidate, then they stand little chance of winning any of the four seats held by Labour and Mana. In fact, you'd have to wonder how secure its position is in the three seats it currently holds' - see: And the winner of the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election is ... Winston Peters?.

Flavell might become more enthusiastic once Mana starts to seriously throw its energy into campaigning for the Waiariki seat, where Annette Sykes beat Labour's Louis Te Kani into third place and pushed Flavell hard in 2011. After the weekend's result a newly-energised Mana Party could emerge as the odds-on favourite to win this seat next year. After all, as John Armstrong has said about the weekend's by-election, 'Mana would seem to be the real by-election winner, having lifted its vote from 14 per cent to close to 25 per cent'. And more evidence of Mana's rise can be seen in Rodney Hide's column, Hone's on to a vote winner, in which Hide berates the Maori nationalist for his electoral bribes, but admits that this is 'superb left-wing politics'.

While Flavell will now be very worried about the Mana challenge in his own seat, his prospects under a re-unified Mana Maori Party aren't too bright either. He is struggling to gain leadership of the Maori party at the moment, but his leadership ambitions would be smashed in a head to head with Hone Harawira. Tariana Turia has little to gain personally from a re-unification as she departs the scene, but Sharples, who wants to stay as leader and as an MP, faces almost certain defeat to Labour in Tamaki Makaurau if Mana competes as well.

The strategic problem for a Mana-Maori merger is that it would take the Maori Party to the left, thereby ruining the electorally-powerful concept of a centrist Maori-based party that could negotiate with either Labour or National. Sharples made this point strongly in Hamish Rutherford's Sharples defends party amid taunts. According to this article, Sharples 'ruled out joining up with Mana, saying the party was set up to build a position where it was always needed by the Government. "In terms of dismantling the Maori Party and joining the Mana Party, that will not happen because we promised our people that we would try and build a group of Maori [MPs] who have a Maori philosophy in Parliament and build it to such a level that no government can govern without us, and we're going to keep doing that." '

Another problem for a merger is that Harawira is presenting this in a way that makes it difficult for the Maori Party to accept. He seems to want a rapprochement on his own terms: 'They sleep with National and they suffer for it. It's time for them to walk away from that National Party relationship and come through the door, join Mana, and become part of Mana Maori, and let's all move forward together' - see Radio NZ's Maori Party says still strong despite election result.

And what those leftwing Pakeha in Mana, like John Minto, Martyn Bradbury and Sue Bradford? Wouldn't they lose out under any attempt at reunification? Minto, who is the co-vice president of Mana, doesn't sound too keen on a merger, saying in a blog post today that 'It all comes down to policy and these parties have diverged significantly since Hone Harawira left the Maori Party. Getting together again would be possible however if the Maori Party adapted its policies to the more broadly supported Mana policies' - see: The winners and losers from Ikaroa-Rawhiti. Minto is also fairly dismissive of the idea that there's not room for two Maori-based parties in Parliament.

Much of the debate about a Mana-Maori merger relates to questions of ethnicity and class. And it's a deeply ideological question about nationalism and the essence of 'Maori politics'. For an interesting discussion on these questions, see Josie Pagani's After Ikaroa-Rawhiti - everyone has something to worry about.

With all the attention now on a speculated Mana-Maori deal, the actual winner of the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election has been eclipsed. Labour's Meka Whaitiri won with an election night vote tally of only 4,368 - an extraordinary low count. After special votes are counted, Whaitiri will be lucky to break 5,000 votes - probably the lowest winning vote count for a number of years.

Voter turnout for by-elections is always low, but this might have been a record low - only 10,519 of the 33,000 voters registered bothered to vote. As the Press editorial noted (Poll brings little joy for Labour), 'the turnout on election day was less than the majority by which Labour's Parekura Horomia won the seat at the last general election'. Geddis notes that, 'The only people who bothered to cast a vote were the most motivated/most loyal individuals in one particular part of the country, in which things like individual personalities, legacy effects and tribal loyalties played an important part'.

Due to the extremely low turnout, Libertarianz party leader Richard McGrath, argues that Parekua Horomia's seat should be left unfilled. It's certainly the case that the most popular option in the by-election was essentially 'None of the above'. And for this reason, Grant Duncan says 'there are also questions being asked about how committed Maori voters are to the Maori electoral roll. Saturday's result does little to answer the critics' - see: Ikaroa-Rawhiti: And the winner was...?.

What of the Labour Party? Was the by-election result enough to re-establish Labour's confidence and shore up the leadership of David Shearer? Labour has expressed it's happiness with the result, but John Armstrong has challenged this, saying 'David Shearer's claim that Labour pulled off an "outstanding" victory in Saturday's Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection is hogwash. For a safe Labour seat, the win was very much in the realm of the ordinary and the predictable' - see: Little joy for Labour, worse news for Maori parties. As Grant Duncan has expressed, 'Mobilising fewer than 5,000 voters, though, is hardly something to crow about'.

Morgan Godfery has also commented, saying 'Labour's revival has been limp.... this was a default win. Labour didn't dominate the discourse - if anything Meka was excluded from it - and Labour let the narrative swing against them. Meka became cold and aloof' - see: The Ikaroa-Rawhiti breakdown. And for more on the new MP and her background, see Hamish Rutherford's profile, Horomia would have been happy about new MP.

Finally, for some amusing takes on what happened in the weekend, see Keeping Stock's blogpost, Tweet of the Day - 30 June 2013, Scott Yorke's So much to say and so few words allowed and Ben Uffindell's Caucus gives David Shearer gold sticker for by-election win.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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