Greens and Maori set to flex muscles

By Peter Wilson

The Greens are again talking about "going neutral" and the Maori Party remains undecided about whether it will align itself with one of the major parties after the next election.

Both seem destined to play a vital role in the formation of the next Government. Neither can be taken for granted by Labour or National.

The Green Party's co-leader, Russel Norman, commented recently about taking a more central position in Parliament and it wasn't the first time this has been considered.

Last May Dr Norman suggested the Greens could work with "a range of parties" and one of its MPs, Nandor Tanczos, said the party might need to adopt a more "independent" stance.

Mr Tanczos felt the Greens had painted themselves into a corner before the last election and that the party's negotiating position was weak because Labour wasn't worried that it would back National.

Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons voiced the party's concerns after Labour stitched up a support deal with New Zealand First and United Future, saying Labour seemed to treat its enemies better than its friends.

Dr Norman's latest musings are evidence that the angst is still there, that the Greens don't want Labour to take them for granted through a parliamentary term and then ditch them at the winning post.

But the Greens may be harder to deal with next time, particularly if they are prepared to go into serious post-election talks with National as well as Labour and trade their votes for policy.

But they remain Labour's most likely allies in a landscape where NZ First and United Future may not have the numbers they have now.

The Maori Party is more difficult to assess. Like the Greens, it seems assured of living through the next election and possibly returning to Parliament with more than the four seats it holds now.

If neither Labour nor National wins enough for an outright majority, which they haven't come close to since MMP was introduced in 1996, the Maori Party could suddenly become important.

And if the way the votes fall means Labour and National both need the Maori Party for a majority, it will become very important.

National, which has only Act as a natural ally and a weak one at that, is acutely aware of the Maori Party's potential to hold the balance of power.

National leader John Key has gone to considerable lengths to extinguish the hostility of Maori towards his party which was generated by Don Brash.

"It is a fair assessment that National has never had a strong support base in the Maori seats," he was quoted as saying last week. "While we would obviously encourage them to support the National Party, if they didn't, our second preference would be for them to support the Maori Party."

For National, it would be better to strip those votes away from Labour and remove or lessen the obligation placed on Maori Party MPs.

It would be very difficult for the Maori Party to side with National while its constituency is so heavily pro-Labour.

Labour knows the danger of losing any support from Maori voters - last week's dinner attended by Prime Minister Helen Clark, her deputy Dr Michael Cullen and the four Maori Party MPs was evidence of that.

Labour also has the advantage of a solid group of its own Maori MPs, and it is seeking co-operation between them and the Maori Party to strengthen ties ahead of the next election.

The Maori Party has taken a genuine middle road since 2005. Its MPs have established the party in Parliament as a credible force, and it has a remarkably efficient media communications system despite its meagre resources.

Co-leader Tariana Turia isn't giving anything away. "We have always been very clear that our job is to advance the interests of our people and also the interests of this nation," she said last week.

"It remains to be seen whether that can be achieved being in coalition, being on the cross benches, giving confidence votes. We haven't got to that point at this stage."


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