John Armstrong: Turia in the perfect place to drive a hard bargain

Helen Clark and John Key went to Ratana to talk up their competing versions of the future for Maori. They found the future staring straight back at them. Seated behind the paepae - the bench on the marae reserved for elders, orators and special guests - was the unmistakable figure of Tariana Turia.

Complaining about the political grandstanding at the Ratana church's annual festivities, she and her MPs opted to forgo a welcome under the Maori Party banner. Given their party's strong profile, they could afford to do so. However, politics and Ratana are inseparable. All eyes were on Turia as on the leaders of the two major parties - and for the very reason she herself offered to reporters.

Asked about Clark's post-2005 election quip about the Maori Party being "the last cab off the rank" when Labour came to pick partners, Turia replied "the placement of cars has changed rapidly".

That is a huge understatement.

The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System declared Maori could expect to enjoy a "just and equitable share of power" under MMP. It has taken two decades to get there, but Maori finally stand on the brink of gaining political power - rather than just court-derived power - for the first time since European colonisation.

MMP is about to enter a fresh phase, one in which all the parties represent recognisable blocs of the electorate. The personality cults are on the way out. Jim Anderton must be thinking about retirement. It will be touch and go whether New Zealand First makes it back into Parliament at the next election.

The Maori Party will become pivotal. Polling suggests neither a centre-left combination of Labour and the Greens with United Future backing, or a centre-right amalgam of National, United Future and Act will have enough seats to secure a parliamentary majority - unless the Greens are willing to prop up a National-led Government.

The wooing of the Maori Party has begun in earnest. National's new leadership had dinner with Turia and her co-leader, Pita Sharples, before Christmas. Labour is also understood to have opened channels of communication around the same time.

Turia and Clark have not talked since Turia's bitter split from Labour. However, Clark is known to chat with Sharples, the pair having Auckland connections. The dialogues will continue through the year in what, at this stage, is essentially an exercise in building trust, while the parties also explore where they agree and disagree policywise.

Given the acrimony between Clark and Turia, Labour has a huge repair job in front of it. In turn, National has to sell itself to Maori Party supporters so they believe the party can do worthwhile business with National even if they do not like National.

The Labour hierarchy shunned dealing with the Maori Party after the last election, citing fear its inexperienced caucus would implode under the pressures of government.

But the Maori Party did not want a deal, opting to consolidate its position in Opposition during its first term.

While there have been disagreements, the party's four MPs have been remarkably self-disciplined.

They have made a nonsense of Labour's predictions, building not only a track record of reliability and responsibility, but showing they are not as extreme as many Pakeha feared.

Much of this is down to Turia. She stamped on Hone Harawira for his loose talk surrounding koha. She will likely restate the message about self-discipline during a two-day strategy meeting next week.

However, the Maori Party now has to start focusing on what it does after the next election, especially if it returns to Parliament in bigger numbers. Given many Maori Party supporters cast their list votes for Labour, a coalition deal with it is more compatible than one with National.

However, Labour and the Maori Party are fighting over the same votes. The latter's identity would inevitably be submerged in a coalition.

There is the complication of Labour's own Maori caucus, while there would be dangers in being too closely associated with a fourth-term Labour administration.

A looser arrangement would be preferable, one offering backing on confidence motions in return for ongoing policy concessions.

When it comes to National, a similar loose arrangement would also suit both parties better than coalition as each will want to maintain some distance from the other.

National has put out feelers to the Maori Party because it can see how fast the MMP landscape is changing. NZ First, United Future and Act could disappear within two elections, leaving National with no allies and the impossible task of securing more than 50 per cent of the vote.

For its part, the Maori Party does not want to be stuck in Labour's shadow. Turia has consequently sought to establish her party has other options and persuade those Labour list voters that it does not matter whether the Maori Party works with the centre-left or the centre-right as long as its objectives are met.

Key's elevation to the National Party leadership makes her task easier. While he has downplayed any retreat from Brash's "one law for all" Orewa missive, his speech at Ratana was the first step in restoring National's dialogue with Maori.

Also making a deal with National easier for Turia to sell is Key's intention to reposition National more to the centre and, on some issues, right up against Labour. But National also has to sell the prospect of a deal with the Maori Party to its supporters.

Conscious of leaving a gap which Winston Peters might fill, Key went about as far as he could go at Ratana without risking shedding voters National picked up after Orewa.

As a gesture of goodwill, National had been flirting with backing Turia's private member's bill to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act, at least as far as the select committee stage.

That now looks highly unlikely. The advice to Key is that National's support base will not wear it.

There is much else - welfare reform, iwi-based delivery of social services, reviewing the treaty settlement process, and promoting Maori business enterprise - where the interests of National and the Maori Party intersect.

For National, the pre-election wooing of the Maori Party is ostensibly about building the foundations of a long-term relationship. There can be no rash moves which upset either party's core supporters ahead of polling day.

Post-election is another matter. The Maori Party may well be the difference between being in power and not in power. Key is pragmatic enough - and his longer-serving colleagues more than desperate enough - for Turia to drive a hard bargain.

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