The National Party has backed down on its policy to abolish the Maori seats as part of a governing agreement Prime Minister-elect John Key and the co-leaders of the Maori Party have described as an important moment in New Zealand's history.
The Maori Party's support agreement with National was revealed yesterday and includes a promise to review the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and a change by National over the Maori seats.
It has promised not to get rid of the seats without Maori consent - a policy similar to Labour's. It will also include them in a wider constitutional review, due to start in 2010, and will review the Foreshore and Seabed Act.
The Maori Party has also agreed not to push to entrench the seats while the constitutional review is under way.
National's policy to abolish the seats was the most likely stumbling block for any agreement between the two parties. Yesterday, Mr Key said the change of heart was a "sensible position".
"We hold the long-term view that we would like to see every New Zealander on a universal franchise. But we acknowledge Maori have to give their approval for that to happen."
He said it was not purely for the sake of the agreement and would not change going into the 2011 election. Mr Key and Maori Party co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia emphasised the importance of a relationship built on mana and respect.
Under the agreement, Dr Sharples will be Minister of Maori Affairs with associate-minister roles in corrections and education. Mrs Turia will become Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, a role she held previously when she was a minister with Labour.
She will also have associate-minister responsibilities in health and social development, including employment.
While the posts are outside Cabinet, Mr Key said such ministers would go into Cabinet meetings to speak to issues arising in their portfolios.
However, Labour MP Shane Jones said it would be the first time a Minister of Maori Affairs was not a Cabinet minister. This was a "diminishing" of the post's status.
Under the agreement, there will also be a review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act by the end of next year. The Maori Party wants to repeal the law, which led to its foundation after Mrs Turia left Labour rather than support the legislation.
Mr Key denied he risked again opening the discord over the law, saying the government would ensure protection of the rights of access of all New Zealanders.
However, Mr Jones said it was "weasel words" to talk about reviewing the act. "Whatever happens, they will not be able to erode those settlements without creating a new set of grievances."
Despite criticism from Labour MPs that the Maori Party was ignoring the majority of Maori, who gave their party votes to Labour, Dr Sharples said his party had entered Parliament to make changes for its people and "champion their rights".
Mrs Turia said Maori people were well aware of the risks that came with the recession of rising unemployment and redundancies. "Our past experience has been that the Maori partner has become the shock absorber for the nation's economy."
She said Mr Key had not needed the Maori Party to form a government. "That he chose to do so indicates the quality of his leadership and the breadth of his vision."