David Farrar

The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Maori Party threats put Govt on edge

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Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia. Photo / Mark Mitchell

If National had received around 5,000 fewer party votes, or if National voters in Epsom and Ohariu had failed to vote for the ACT and United Future candidates respectively, then the conflict over treaty clauses in SOEs would be critical.

National, Act and United Future have 61 votes out of 121. The Maori Party has agreed to support them on supply and confidence, but the Government can pass budgets and laws without them.

One of the ironies of the election was that if Labour had not won Te Tai Tonga from the Maori Party, then Parliament would have 122 MPs instead of 121 MPs (due to overhang), and National, ACT and United Future would be unable to govern without the support of a fourth party.

The public fight with the Maori Party over treaty clauses in any legislation allowing the energy SOEs to be partly privatised is a relatively easy dispute to solve.

As I understand it, the current section nine doesn't bind SOEs to act in accordance with treaty principles - it applies to the Crown, when exercising powers under the SOE Act.

It does not apply to SOEs, which are not the core Crown, and so it does not impact on their ability to conduct business as ordinary commercial companies.

The requirement is for the Crown, when exercising shareholder rights, to act consistently with the principle of the Treaty of Waitangi. But an SOE, acting in the course of its business, is not constrained by s9. Nor are its other shareholders.

So the solution to this particular issue will be for the legislation to continue to ensure any actions by the Crown as shareholder, have to be consistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Now the Crown as a majority shareholder will have less power over the companies involved, as they have as sole shareholder. So the possibility of them taking any actions as shareholders which have treaty ramifications is very very limited.

What is more important to Iwi will be memorials on land owned by SOEs, which require the land to be offered to Iwi should the SOE no longer need it. This occurs under S27, not S9.

So I do not think a solution is that difficult for this particular issue. What is of greater political significance is the language and tone of Maori Party statements on the issue. To be threatening to leave the Government just two months after you have joined it, is quite unprecedented.

Such a tactic can be effective at gaining support for the minor party, by allowing them to claim a "win". A large part of MMP politics involves major parties making sure minor parties can claims "wins". Some of the wins are voluntary, and some of the wins have to be extracted under pressure from the major party.

Threatening to leave the Government over an issue is the nuclear option when it comes to MMP politics. It should be used very very rarely, and to use it so early in a new term of Parliament can be seen as a sign of bad faith.

The most important aspect to relations between parties in Government is trust and good faith. If one party thinks the other party is not committed to the relationship, then it is all downhill from there.

I'm not suggesting that this is the case here. It is known that Key, English, Sharples and Turia especially have a strong open working relationship. But this flare up so early does make you wonder whether the Maori Party plan to go into the 2014 election as part of Government, or if they may try and engineer an excuse to depart before the next election.

If that does eventuate, the Government will be hoping all its MPs in marginal seats are in very good health, and scandal-free.

- NZ Herald

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