Editorial: Maori Party needs to find ways to rejuvenate

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Sharples' decision to step down is the right one.

Pita Sharples. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Pita Sharples. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Pita Sharples has been a respected voice in national life for much longer than the Maori Party has existed. An educator, a cultural leader and always a calming contributor to race relations, he was probably not temperamentally suited to politics but his presence has been immensely valuable to the Maori Party since he joined its founder, Tariana Turia, as a co-leader.

His decision to step aside at the party's conference in a fortnight, and to retire from Parliament at next year's election, is the right one. It means both its founding leaders will go, giving the party a chance to rejuvenate if it can. It needs to start right away. Next year will be too late.

The result of the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection at the weekend must have been a profound shock. To run a good candidate and see him finish third, behind Labour and the Mana Party, is devastating. It cannot be attributed entirely to the unresolved leadership bid by Te Ururoa Flavell. His challenge was a symptom, not a cause, of the party's problem. Mrs Turia stated the problem precisely yesterday: "Our people need to decide whether they want to continue living a life of activism standing on the sidelines, or someone actually progressing their issues.

That's what the Maori Party stands for."

Unfortunately, she has put that choice directly to Maori voters many times before. Each time the answer suggests Maori voters are less convinced that they need a party willing to work with governments from either side of the political spectrum.

Some of the voters who put the party's candidates into five seats at the 2008 election abandoned the party after it made a bargain with the incoming National Government. When Hone Harawira left, insisting that Maori were better served by activism outside a government, or at least outside this government, he held his seat.

The low turnout in Ikaroa-Rawhiti last Saturday was as telling as the results. Maori voters appear not to be strongly inclined in any direction now. They have no compelling issue such as the foreshore and seabed that gave rise to the Maori Party. The foreshore settlement with National took much the same form as Labour's legislated solution. The fact that a Maori party was in a position to negotiate the settlement appears to have made the difference.

Yet that experience has not convinced Maori voters that they are better off with a party in a position to bargain. The experience seems to have reconciled some of them to Labour and left others preferring the irreconcilable positions of Mr Harawira. Endless activism is a form of participation in politics and it can bring results, though not in ways that help bring the country together.

Inevitably in the wake of Ikaroa-Rawhiti there have been calls for the Maori and Mana parties to settle their differences and present a united front. If they did so, it would be on Mana's terms now. It would be a party that refused to deal with National in any circumstances. Nor would Labour want to rely on its support. But its very prospect of holding the balance of power could change the way voters approach the election.

Whatever happens, the Maori Party's fortunes have been enlightening for all concerned. Its difficulties suggest Maori political aspirations are not very different from those of most voters, that socio-economic interests are more important than a distinct political voice. Dr Sharples probably knew this all along.

- NZ Herald

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