In the good old days - pre-2008 - everyone knew National and Act went together like milk and tea and National and the Maori Party went together like milk and lemon juice.

So one of the several strange aspects of this election is the apparent level of surprise that National wants to help out Act.

Little attention has been paid so far to National and the Maori Party, beyond some perfunctory questions about whether the Maori Party will work with National again. The answer from the co-leaders so far has been a "wait and see". There has been speculation about whether the Maori Party will sustain serious damage if it serves another term with National, a party many Maori remain suspicious of.

It will have to back Budgets that include asset sales, something it is strongly opposed to. And there is also the question about what more it can gain from National.


The answer to that is probably very little in new initiatives. Most of the Maori Party's policies are either too expensive or political anathema to the National Party, and would have a better chance under Labour.

But to leave now would be to abandon the gains it has made in the past three years, limited as they were by the financial situation. It would forsake Whanau Ora, the change in social services delivery Tariana Turia has begun to implement and has told her people will help change their fate.

It would also abandon the Constitutional Review which Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples is heading with National's Bill English and it would leave the future of the Maori seats to the National and Act parties, which want them abolished.

The Maori Party will also be keen to ensure it is there eyeballing National when the first claims under the new foreshore and seabed regime come up for negotiation.

It is true that in the past, smaller parties have come a cropper by going into Government. But that has either been because they exceeded their brief or were so closely aligned with the major party that they became virtually indistinguishable from it. There is a greater risk of that happening for the Maori Party with Labour than with National.

With National, there is a much stronger point of differentiation, and its relationship is as much about opposing as supporting. With Labour, that differentiation disappears.

In 2014, it could be a different story for the Maori Party. It will have new leadership and if Rahui Katene cannot hold on to Te Tai Tonga, it will have only one MP with any experience - Te Ururoa Flavell. Then it may be better for the party to return to Opposition to catch its breath.

But this election, the question is not whether the Maori Party will work with National again - but how much power it will have - and that could depend on Act.

Mana leader Hone Harawira's argument that the Maori Party is, by default, supporting Act because it is dealing with the same broker is pure politicking.

In some ways it is to the Maori Party's advantage to have Act on the other side of the arrangement. Act is a counterbalance to it and gives it more leeway to speak out against Government policy. It also gives the Maori Party a target.

Act is also looking weak, and the weaker Act is, the stronger the Maori Party is.

The Maori Party is of course weighing up the risk of damage to its brand. This term it did not make enough use of its freedom to oppose. But polling shows Maori voters generally approve of seeing the two co-leaders at the top table.

Those co-leaders know they have to work hard to justify some of the things they have to accept while they're there. And if they don't know, Harawira will point it out. But having Harawira on the outside in some kind of hall-monitor roll is good for Maori while the Maori Party is on the inside.