It’s “game on” in the Maori seats for next year’s election with a Maori-Mana showdown with Labour looking likely. At stake is not only the seven Maori seats, but quite possibly the power to decide the next government.

Could the turbulence happening in politics elsewhere filter through to Maori politics in 2017? It would be a mistake to rule it out. The reality is that Maori politics with its unique factions, frictions and changing alliances could play an important part in making next year's election a less predictable one.
I detailed the extent of these changes - particularly the likely Mana and Maori Party re-alignment - back in August in my column, Maori kings and kingmakers. This explained the importance of the improving relations between the two Maori parties, and how political configurations within Maoridom are changing.
Morgan Godfery is unconvinced about the potential significance of the deal and has written a reply this week - see: Behold, Maori politics' great realignment. Or, don't believe the hype. He argues that Labour won't easily be dislodged from any of the Maori electorate seats, primarily because Maoridom is so traditional, and so accordingly the Labour Party is very centrist when it comes to these seats: "What most Pakeha don't understand because they don't know history and what the Maori Party refuse to acknowledge because it's inconvenient is Labour has always occupied 'the centre' in Maori politics".
Additionally, he says the Maori Party will have difficulty winning more Maori support while it is seen as aligned with National: "the very possibility Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox could decide the next government gives Labour's its best line: 'a vote for the Maori Party is a vote for National'. Remember that Maori electorate voters remain stubbornly Labour, with the party winning six electorate seats and nearly half of the party vote at the last election."
He claims Labour, despite the contradictions of representing Maori from within a pakeha dominated party understands the role of the Maori seats in a way that that the Maori party is yet to resolve: "If a 'realignment' or 'reordering' is happening it will only happen after Flavell and Fox have squared their status as a party of government with their positions outside of Cabinet. It'll happen when they reconcile their status as leaders of a parliamentary party with the social movement they came from. It'll happen when they can, as Sir Apirana Ngata once put it, 'reinterpret the Maori point of view to Pakeha power'."
Godfery also looks at the complex relationship Maori MPs have with their electorates and how pakeha political observers often misinterpret its place on the political spectrum: "in truth decades-long loyalty to Labour is a better sign of conservatism than radicalism, at least conservatism of the temperamental kind."
To further the debate about whether Maori politics is changing, and how we should understand it, John Moore has answered Godfery in his blog post, How the Maori Party and Mana alliance connects with the anti-Establishment zeitgeist. He argues Godfery's analysis is stuck in the past, and indicates a very conservative understanding of Maori politics.
Moore disputes that Maori politics is inherently conservative, and he argues that the current anti-Establishment mood could yet filter through to Maoridom, via the Mana-Maori alliance, leaving conventional commentators behind: "Just as political commentators have failed to grasp the shifting political mood in the American presidential election as well as with the Brexit vote, commentators who analyse the Maori political world based on old assumptions inevitably fail to see the dynamism and fluidity that characterises the modern Maori voter. Another big shakeup in the Maori electorates could well be on the horizon. A Maori Party and Mana electoral block that is able to present itself as an independent voice for Maori could well capture the mood of dissatisfaction and political alienation from Maori voters. If the kaupapa Maori block can present itself in a way that captures the anti-Establishment mood within the Maori political world, then Labour's partial regain of the Maori voters' allegiance might be very short-lived. Prepare for another shake-up and radical upturn in the Maori electorates!"
Certainly there are some signs of turbulence and a shift to the left amongst the Maori parties. For example, in announcing that the Maori Party is working more closely with the King, a more leftwing and radical language was noticeable - see Mihingarangi Forbes' Maori Party to work more closely with Kingitanga.
Forbes quotes spokespeople from both the Maori Party and the King's office: "Mr Flavell said the Maori Party and the Kingitanga shared the 'same key goals for Māori which include battling homelessness, alleviating poverty, creating jobs, and increasing Māori electoral participation', and that working with the Kingitanga made sense. The Chief of Staff to the Office of the Kingitanga, Te Rangihiroa Whakaruru, said with growing levels of homelessness and poverty 'Māori need to work together to do what's best for our people'."

Maori Party president Tukoroirangi Morgan is masterminding a deal sharply focused on wresting the Maori seats back off Labour. Photo / Dean Purcell
Maori Party president Tukoroirangi Morgan is masterminding a deal sharply focused on wresting the Maori seats back off Labour. Photo / Dean Purcell

More about the difficult deal

A Mana-Maori deal is certainly coming together more easily and quickly than many assumed. Cooperation between Hone Harawira and Te Ururoa Flavell appeared to be a political impossibility not long ago, but Maori Party president Tukoroirangi Morgan is masterminding a deal sharply focused on wresting the Maori seats back off Labour - see Nicholas Jones' Maori Party and Mana move closer to agreement.
The nature of the relationship for the election is not finalised, with a joint working group hammering out the details, but electorate deals to win the Maori seats are very likely. From Morgan's perspective that goal is stronger than the remaining differences between them: "Those seats belong to the kaupapa Maori parties. It does not belong to Pakeha dominated parties" - see Glen McConnelll's Maori Party could give up on seats, if it means Labour lose - party president.
Some commentators think the new alliance will have its work cut out to take the Maori seats back. In October, TV3's The Nation looked at the likely contests in detail. At that stage NewsHub's Maiki Sherman still had some doubts about the likelihood of Maori-Mana electoral deals and thought just adding the two parties' 2014 votes together was not a good predictor of 2017 outcomes - see the 14-minute item: How crucial will the Maori seats be in 2017?.
However Chris Wikaira, thought Labour still has some considerable baggage to get over, especially the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and thinks the past volatility of voters in the seats is still a factor: "It's really up for grabs".
The arithmetic of the 2014 votes certainly does suggest that a Mana-Maori alliance could bear plenty of fruit - Rawiri Taonui says: "the combined Mana Movement and Maori Party electorate vote was an average 1000 higher than for Labour in the Te Tai Tokerau, Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki electorates, 600 higher the year before in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election and Flavell won Waiariki. Voters were simply unable to choose between Mana and Maori" - see: The power behind the throne: Tuku Morgan, the Maori Party and King Tuheitia Paki's speech.
Taonui's article is a must-read for understanding Maori politics - probably the best account written for a while. He puts forward a useful historic account of voting and candidates in the Maori electorates, and explains the problems that Labour is having with Maoridom at the moment.

Maori TV said it is understood Rahui Papa will consider contesting the Hauraki-Waikato candidacy. Photo / Maori TV
Maori TV said it is understood Rahui Papa will consider contesting the Hauraki-Waikato candidacy. Photo / Maori TV

Maori electorate candidates

Another crucial factor, always important in Maori seat contests, are the actual candidates going head to head. While Labour's candidates - essentially their current MPs, for better or for worse - are a known quantity, Ella Henry flagged that they could be up against some very high profile competition "Some very big names are being touted, some very well-known people, who at the end of the day have got a brand reputation."
Maori TV has named some possibilities in October: "It's understood Tainui leader Rahui Papa will consider contesting the Hauraki-Waikato candidacy, sources say other leaders have also been approached by the party to put their names forward to contest the party's candidacies including Ngai Tahu leader Mark Solomon for Te Tai Tonga, Shane Taurima for Tamaki Makaurau, Ngarimu Blair for Tamaki Makaurau, Moana Maniapoto for Tamaki Makaurau and Willie Jackson for Tamaki Makaurau" - see: Ngati Ruanui leader contests Maori Party Tai Hauauru candidacy.
In the Te Tai Hauauru electorate, the party chose "NZ Rugby League President and former Kiwis player Howie Tamati" - see Claire Trevett's Maori Party hopes former Kiwis star Howie Tamati will boost its vote. And for Te Tai Tonga, the party has been in talks with "long-standing Ngai Tahu head Sir Mark Solomon" - see Claire Trevett's Tamati Coffey to stand in Waiariki for Labour as Maori Party courts Sir Mark Solomon.
Trevett's article also reports that John Tamihere has joined the party to help campaign, and broadcaster Willie Jackson is considering standing for the party in Tamaki Makaurau: "That crazy Tuku Morgan has talked to a lot of people. Tuku will have a talk and then you have a think about it, I suppose. We'll let you know."

Some see Labour's Meka Whaitiri as being a potential causualty of the Mana-Maori alliance. Photo / Duncan Brown
Some see Labour's Meka Whaitiri as being a potential causualty of the Mana-Maori alliance. Photo / Duncan Brown

Possible casualties of the changing Maori landscape

Marama Fox was identified as a possible and surprising casualty of any alliance. As a current List MP she could be a victim of her party's success if others win more seats than her party is proportionately entitled to - see Mihingarangi Forbes' Maori parties' alliance could push Fox out of Parliament.
Fox, however, is only too aware of the importance of the seats in Maori politics and was not complaining: "If I can't win my own seat with my own people, then I don't deserve to be here" - see: Newshub's Marama Fox in danger of losing her place in Parliament.
Some see Labour's Meka Whaitiri as being a potential causualty of the Mana-Maori alliance, with her seat of Ikaroa-Rawhiti being under threat. But an unusual ally has stepped forward to sing her praises - see Simon Lusk's Assessment on Meka Whaitiri is wrong. The rightwing campaign operative says "Of the seven seats, Meka is the only Labour MP not under threat from the Maori & Mana agreement seeing only one opponent running against Labour."

A significant Maori-Mana presence could also dramatically reduce Winston Peters' leverage post-election. Photo / Christine McKay
A significant Maori-Mana presence could also dramatically reduce Winston Peters' leverage post-election. Photo / Christine McKay

Implications for deciding the next government

The wider implications of the Maori seat battle for deciding the next election are now very interesting. Martyn Bradbury does the maths and concludes that Labour is working against itself: "If the Maori Party and Mana make an arrangement not to stand in certain electorates and the Maori Party bring in candidates of the calibre of Jackson, they have every chance of winning 6 electorates and Mana winning 1 electorate. So Labour would 'lose' 6 electorate MPs, but thanks to MMP, they would make those numbers back up from their Party vote" - see: Why Labour need to lose the Maori electorates if a progressive Government is to have a chance.
This has always been the cleft stick for Labour under MMP, needing potential coalition partners to do well without cannabilising its own vote. While the Maori seats provide a mechanism for that to happen, their loss to Labour brings its own trauma. As well as being the difference between being in government or opposition, a significant Maori-Mana presence could also dramatically reduce Winston Peters' leverage post-election (and vice-versa). Either way it would be Labour's hand that would strengthened from having more than one coalition option to choose from.
And Labour will not be able to rail against "dodgy" electorate deals as they have in the past. Their nod to Winston Peter' in the Northland by-election and their new arrangement with the Greens in Ohariu and Nelson are exactly the same as being looked at in the Maori seats - see TVNZ's Labour and Greens' strategy could split vote in key Maori seat. The Ohariu deal, if successful, would deprive National of one vote.
A Maori-Mana sweep of the Maori seats could deliver up to seven extra votes. Of course the Maori Party MPs could continue to give their votes to National but, despite the coalition history, there are some problems with continuing the relationship after 2017. If the Maori Party is in its long sought after "kingmaker" position after the election then, almost certainly, Winston Peters will be in exactly the same position. He is a master at getting his way in coalition negotiations which means the Maori Party's bargaining power with National may not be that much greater than it is now, regardless of how many seats they have.
Their support for National has also come at a huge cost in electoral support and directly resulted in the schism with Harawira that they are trying to heal now. If they help Harawira back into Parliament only to once again prop up National and square off with him on opposite sides of Parliament, any electoral gains made could be short lived.
Regardless, these battles will be hard-fought. For signs of how bitter the fight between the Mana-Maori alliance and Labour could be, see Elton Rikinana Smallman's Mahuta, Morgan in 'a fight to the death' for the Maori vote. In this it is reported that Nanaia Mahuta has raised questions about misuse of Tainui resources, and Tuku Morgan has reacted to label her a traitor ("kupapa").
Finally, in case you missed it, you can see just how turbulent Maori politics is at the moment by reading Maiki Sherman's account of how manipulative and dramatic the manuoverings are in this area. She says "The Maori Party has been hijacked by the Kingitanga - they just don't know it yet", and "Maori politics is fast becoming a Game of Thrones. Historic political alliances and allegiances be damned. All bets are off - everything and everyone is fair game" - see: Maori Politics now a Game of Thrones.