John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Maori Party not yet past its use-by date

Labour's women-only candidate selection plan bonkers

Flavell must neutralise the view which Labour has successfully pushed - that the Maori Party is finished. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Flavell must neutralise the view which Labour has successfully pushed - that the Maori Party is finished. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Don't write the Maori Party off completely. Not yet, anyway. The mathematics so starkly revealed by the result of last Saturday's Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection may well point to one inescapable conclusion: that all three electorate seats held by the Maori Party are likely to tumble to Labour at next year's election.

Labour's obsession with reconquering all seven Maori seats is actually counter-productive. Winning back the four it does not hold would not add to its overall tally of seats in Parliament.

Tactically speaking, Labour would be better off making a pre-election pact with either the Maori Party or (more likely) Hone Harawira's Mana and allow either party a free ride in the Maori seats, thus increasing the overall number of seats in the centre-left bloc post-election.

There are two fundamental reasons why that cannot happen. First, Labour could not bring itself to be seen to be forsaking Maori, a core component of the party.

Second, despite much advice to the contrary in the past week, the Maori Party is not going to forego its option of negotiating with National.

Indeed, in selling itself as a pan-Maori Party that is neither left nor right, the Maori Party intends positioning itself as more of a centre party, rather than being confined to the Maori seats where it faces an ever tighter squeeze.

Minor parties do well when the major competitor on their side of the political spectrum is in the doldrums.

It is no surprise that the golden days for the Maori Party have coincided with Labour's support going through a cyclical downturn, which saw it fall from 41 per cent in 2005 to just 27 per cent in 2011. Those days are nearly over.

Inevitably, Labour's share will start rising again simply because it always has in the past.

The Maori Party and Mana can only hope and pray that does not happen this side of next year's election.

Labour seems to be doing its best to oblige. When you are in a hole, you can rely on Labour to dig itself into an even deeper one beside you - as it did this week with its shoot-yourself-in-both-feet potential change to party rules to allow women-only candidate selections.

This was not solely political correctness gone stark-raving bonkers. Apart from alienating one group of voters who have drifted away from Labour in recent years - men - such a rule change would be just as insulting to women in insinuating they could not win selection on their own merits.

The proposal should have been kiboshed by the leader the moment he saw it. That he didn't - or felt he couldn't - points to deep schisms in the party.

The message voters will take from Labour's warped priorities is that of a party which cannot get its act together in the snoozy backwaters of Opposition, let alone in the blazing sun of Government.

However, even if such inept political management on Labour's behalf sees that party languishing around the 30 per cent mark or even lower, the Maori Party's chances of holding at least one seat remain contingent on the degree that the Mana Party splits the non-Labour vote, as it did in Ikaroa-Rawhiti.

Further complicating things is that the Maori Party will be losing its two strongest personalities and with them their vote-pulling powers.

Pita Sharples' retirement from politics at the next election puts his Tamaki-Makaura seat into the highly marginal category, while Tariana Turia's departure from Parliament likewise raises big questions as to whether the party can hold her Te Tai Hauauru seat despite a 3000-plus majority.

The hope is that the pending installation of the party's Waiariki MP Te Ururoa Flavell as Sharples' replacement as co-leader will prove sufficient for him to hold his seat.

However, the Maori Party also has a cunning plan to make it less dependent on those seats. It may work. It may not.

Exploiting a centrist positioning to make itself more attractive to a wider catchment of voters, the party is planning to target voters on the general roll - and not necessarily Maori alone.

Enrolment figures produced last November show that of the approximately 424,000 people who identified themselves as Maori and were enrolled to vote, some 234,000 were on the Maori roll and 190,000 were on the general roll.

Partly because of tactical voting by Maori, the Maori Party has consistently recorded a low party vote - less than 2 per cent at the last election.

However, a third of the Maori Party's party vote at that election came from the general roll.

Presumably many Maori who have remained on the general roll have done so for reasons which have nothing to do with ethnicity.

There is also a risk the party's brand gets blurred or diluted.

Much hangs on Flavell, who will become co-leader alongside Turia at the party's annual general meeting in Whakatane next weekend.

While quietly spoken and unprepossessing, he displayed a steely resolve in his clashes with Hone Harawira when he was the Maori Party's whip.

Likewise his direct challenge to Sharples' co-leadership of the party speaks of someone who is not some shrinking violet.

The first thing Flavell must do as co-leader is to neutralise the view which Labour has successfully pushed that the Maori Party is finished. He must get the maximum benefit from the media opportunities that come with a leadership change.

He must spell out - if only in broad terms - where the Maori Party goes from here.

There is little point in the AGM conducting a post-mortem on the party's relatively poor showing in the byelection - at least in public.

The factors that pushed the party into third place have been well-canvassed - a dire lack of money to mount a strong campaign across a vast electorate; a shortage of party supporters and volunteers to knock on doors and maintain the party's profile compared to the Labour "machine" which disgorged huge numbers of helpers into the seat; the calibre and connections of the Labour candidate; the long-running dispute between Sharples and Flavell over the co-leadership; the seeming inability to celebrate the party's wins and communicate to voters what it is achieving as part of a governing arrangement; and, lastly, the party's proximity to National which is regarded as being particularly toxic to the Maori Party.

Despite all those negatives, the Maori Party's byelection vote matched its result in the 2011 election. The party is consoling itself that this means it has bedrock support of at least 20 per cent of Maori voters.

Wishful thinking? Maybe.

But you can count on one thing. Flavell is not going to allow Labour, Mana, the Greens or NZ First to treat him or his party as something to be trashed because it is supposedly way beyond its use-by date.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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