Parties forced to share stage at Ratana marae

By Jon Stokes, NZPA

The Maori Party was forced to share the stage with National at the annual Ratana celebrations yesterday, sparking speculation that Ratana leaders were punishing the party for its post-election dalliance with National.

Both parties played down the united appearance, which reminded onlookers of their closeness immediately after last year's election.

Organisers said the two Opposition parties were welcomed on to the marae jointly because of time restrictions.

But a Ratana kaumatua, who did not want to be named, said welcoming two political parties together was unusual.

He believed the shared platform was deserved as the Maori Party had held discussions with National in a bid to form a Government following last year's election.

Ratana spokesman Wayne Johnston said the party leaders were not compelled to accept the joint welcome. The request was unusual but it was made because of delays caused by rain and an earlier welcome taking longer than expected.

Prime Minister Helen Clark, who arrived after National and the Maori Party, was received on to the marae with a large contingent of Labour MPs and was invited to sit with the hosts, as in previous years.

Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright, making her first visit to Ratana, shared the same honour.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said while some people had reservations about being welcomed on to the marae with National, he was comfortable with it.

"I don't think Don [Brash] knew whether to come on his own. Ratana sent their people and said they were behind time because of rain and other stuff.

"They asked if we would come on together. We discussed it and agreed."

Co-leader Tariana Turia said she was there for the birthday celebration of the Ratana Church founder, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. His 133rd birthday will be celebrated today.

She said there was no connection between the Maori Party and National and the Maori Party would decide which parties it voted with in Parliament on a case-by-case basis.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira did not support the decision to welcome the two parties together.

He refused to say whether he thought the move was designed to embarrass the party, but said the stark difference in speeches by party leaders showed they had little in common.

National Party leader Don Brash said he took the reasons for being welcomed together at face value.

As both National and the Maori Party were in opposition there were issues they would co-operate on, he said, but there were fundamental differences between them.

Those differences were clearly apparent during the leaders' speeches.

In his speech Dr Brash said he accepted the long relationship between Labour and Ratana, but claimed successive National governments had given significant help to Maori through housing and support for the Maori language.

He defended National's race relations policy.

"There is nothing in my speech at Orewa two years ago that could be interpreted as being anti-Maori."

Speaking in Maori, Dr Sharples picked up on Dr Brash's call for one law for all.

He said Maori were treated differently because they lagged so far behind Pakeha economically, socially, in health and life expectancy.

Helen Clark said Labour had an edge over other parties because it led the Government and was able to put its promises to help Maori into practice.

- additional reporting Ainsley Thomson

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