The Maori Party's miserable collapse at the election marked the end of a 13-year political reign. Claire Trevett lifts the lid on the plan - and the man - to breathe life into the party.

On the main street of Kaitaia during the election campaign, Dr Lance O'Sullivan is showing off the project that has won him many accolades.

He pulls out his iPad and shows the Herald some photos of sores on an anonymous childs legs.

The photos were sent to him by someone living in a small town which had no local doctor.


O'Sullivans MaiHealth programme offers a remote consultation to people without ready access to primary healthcare. In response, doctors who have signed up to help with the service can either advise a visit for a full consultation or, for minor ailments, simply prescribe a treatment online.

Now the Maori Party is in need of the doctors services.

When O'Sullivan announced prior to the election that he wanted to stand for Parliament in 2020, he promised he would not offer same old, same old.

He also tried to avert the Maori Partys fate, telling The Spinoff there was an opportunity for voters to ensure the party was in a healthy state rather than one that needs resuscitation.

Alas, he is now being called on to deliver that CPR.

O'Sullivan is a prominent figure in New Zealand and particularly in Northland. He is articulate and energetic. He is not yet a politician but nobody could accuse O'Sullivan of being out of touch with the needs and cares of Maori lives.

O'Sullivan had been wooed by other parties, but chose the Maori Party, saying he believed in the powers of smaller parties in MMP and it fitted best with his own world view.

The 44-year-old said he was not planning to make any decisions or comment until the end of October while the party assessed what it might do.

He is, however, involved in the post-election discussions between party supporters trying to work out how to salvage it.

Those include former co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples.

The party has now organised a big hui and its AGM for early November in Auckland. There, the members will take stock of what went wrong and how to resurrect it.

At that, the co-leadership positions and the jobs on the ruling council are due to go up for election - unless the members decide to roll over the leadership team of Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox in the interim to allow time for others to make decisions.

Among those under scrutiny will be party President Tukoroirangi Morgan, who led the Maori Partys campaign strategy. That included a deal with Mana, getting the endorsement from the Maori King and introducing Pacific Island and Asia branches to the partys campaign - some of which backfired in spectacular fashion.

Morgan is refusing to comment until the special votes are counted, apparently because of a very slim hope the Maori Partys fortunes could turn.

On average, there are 5400 special votes for each of the 71 electorates. In the past, seats with margins of 300 or so have turned on the special votes in the past.

But in both the closest Maori seats, Te Tai Hauauru and Waiariki, Labours candidates have margins of more than 1000 - and that is a big ask.

Flavell has no expectation of a turnaround. In the Maori Party offices overlooking Wellington Harbour in Parliaments Bowen House, the shelves have been emptied, the walls stripped of art and the cushions with pictures of foxes to delineate Marama Foxs side of the office packed away.

A glass wall printed with photos of the Foreshore and Seabed hui that led to the Maori Partys creation in 2004 is all that is left of a reminder the party once lived here.

When Flavell took over the leadership from Sharples in 2013, he stood before the Maori Party people and spoke, his face streaming with tears of emotion.

He joked that now he was the co-leader he might be spared dishes duty at marae.

Since September 23, the tears have been of anguish rather than pride.

Youre the leader and you lost your seat and youre a minister and the whole legacy stuff was important to me, which is why I still take it pretty hard and am still pretty emotional about it.

Asked if he blames himself, he shrugs, more just sadness that it happened on my watch.

It hasnt helped going to a string of farewells featuring slide shows of the Maori Partys time in Parliament. I know weve done awesome stuff, yet we didnt get any credit for the things we had done - we got slammed for the things we hadnt done.


Observers and those involved in the Maori Party campaign have pointed to a raft of reasons for its failure.

The catalogue includes a flimsy policy platform and the attempt to boost the Pacific vote by drafting in Pacific candidates. There was the Pacific Island candidates false claim to be endorsed by the Tongan King and backfiring candidate Wetex Kang, who became embroiled in accusations of offering cash credits for votes.

There was also Morgans ploy of getting the Maori King endorsement against Labours Nanaia Mahuta.

But the two primary reasons pointed to were Labour leader Jacinda Ardern and the Maori Partys three terms with the National Party.

Maori broadcaster Ngahuia Wade was one of the very few who predicted Flavell would lose Waiariki - making that prediction in the Herald. She says now that was because she was a Waiariki voter herself.

I asked every Maori I could canvas - daughter, son-in-law, aunty, uncle, cousins - who they were voting for. Only two whanau out of 40 or so said the Maori Party. That was my first sign.

The Maori Party did not see any signs that they were going to lose. The believed their own press.

The Maori Party has always relied on Labour supporters for its existence in the Maori seats.

Split voting statistics show that in the former Maori Party strongholds of Te Tai Hauauru, Waiariki and Tamaki Makaurau, about 50 per cent of Labour voters gave their electorate vote to the Maori Party candidates in 2008. In 2011, after the first term with National, that dropped to about 25 per cent.

By 2014, after the resignations of Turia and Sharples it dropped to around 15 per cent in Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau electorates and stuck at 25 per cent in Waiariki. The other 25 per cent went to Mana candidate Annette Sykes.

Yet, three times the Maori Party signed up with National rather than go into Opposition or the cross benches.

Even now Flavell is very quick to say no when asked if, in hindsight, the party would have been better off on the cross benches in the last term.

Had we not been in that relationship, what would the country have looked like? What would have been different in terms of whanau ora, Maori housing, stuff we had done?

Flavell says the party did not run the same campaign as in the past and we got caught very much in that hate National, love Jacinda sort of stuff.

He believed that was one of the reasons he lost Waiariki.

Tamaki Makaurau candidate Shane Taurima also pointed to Ardern, saying that when she took over, the reception on the streets changed completely.

Dr Lance O'Sullivan bungy-jumped form the Auckland Harbour Bridge to raise money and awareness for Muscular Dystrophy New Zealand

There was a much greater reluctance by voters to split their votes - and while Nationals vote held up nationwide, the dislike of National only intensified in the Maori seats.

For the first time in a long time, Labour supporters could sniff a change in government was possible and did not want to take any risk the Maori Party would prevent it by siding with National again.

As the impact of that became obvious, the party leaders signalled they would side with Labour.

But it was too late, and as Flavell now concedes maybe too subtle. The party did not rule out National completely and the Maori Party struggled to get voters to believe them.

The Maori Partys main arguments for existence were two-fold. It argued it could only deliver change from Government. It also argued it was an independent voice and beholden only to Maori - not to a party line as Labours Maori MPs were.

Political commentator Morgan Godfery says there is no doubt the party did make gains with National - pointing to the flagship Maori Party Whanau Ora programme to deliver social services to Maori whanau and persuading National to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But, in the end that was irrelevant given the antipathy toward National in the Maori seats.

National rarely scores more than 10 per cent in the Maori seats because they are actively and passively despised. So from the Maori side, [the Maori Party] looked more and more captured.


Ngahuia Wade says Dame Tariana Turias decision to get actively involved in the party again will help it return to power but the Maori Partys response in the immediate aftermath to its election loss could count against it.

She points to Foxs anger at the voters for casting out Flavell and the lack of acknowledgement of Labours Tamati Coffeys achievement.

Ive covered six elections and there are always winners and losers but no one turned on the voters like the Maori Party and their supporters did, calling those who did not vote for them dumb, and like domestic violence victims returning to their abuser and oppressor. It was hideous.

Wade said she sat next to Turia at Maori Television on election night as the results came in. Turia was sad but not disheartened.

Marama Fox should take a leaf out of the book of an old lady with a steely gaze; be classy and you may just make it back in 2020.

Maori commentator Emma Espiner - a Tamaki Makaurau voter - sees OSullivan as the partys best hope along with Fox.

He can reach across. Hes got the same widespread appeal, cut-through and media savvy as [Fox] does but in a different way. And he has untouchable credibility.

So two big hitters like that, who the mainstream media love but who can foot it in the Maori world. They need those two, resources and a definite seat.

Godfery says the leadership could make a difference at the margins if there is a close run electorate battle in 2020 - but he doubts that would be the case for OSullivan against Kelvin Davis in Te Tai Tokerau.

He would be in one sense a great asset because of his public profile and the work he does in the community, but in another sense perhaps not tested politically and would make quite a few mistakes, at least in the early days.

He points to interesting statements by O'Sullivan, such as a media interview prior to the election in which O'Sullivan declared he wanted to be the health minister and then proposed a freeze on health spending for five years - saying about $2-3 billion was wasted on inefficiencies.

Espiner thinks it might be easier for the Maori Party if there is a Labour-NZ First-Green government because it will allow the Maori Party to hold Labours Maori MPs to account.

There is something solid to rail against.

Godfery also believes the Maori Partys chances would be better with Labour in government.

They could come back but only if Labour is in government because then they could act as the Opposition. Whereas, if the Nats get in with Winston, its not really a purpose they could fulfil or an issue they could run on unless Winston goes ahead with his referendum on the Maori seats. But that looks increasingly unlikely.

Godfery says the Maori Party desperately needs an issue to campaign on. Just asking people to return them in three years so they can sit at the table isnt a very inspiring message.

Paradoxically, the Maori Partys great nemesis, NZ First leader Winston Peters, could end up being the partys saviour.

Peters has now cooled on his desire to hold a referendum on the Maori seats.

In 2014 former PM John Key said any moves on the Maori seats would result in hikois from hell and tear the country apart.

The Maori Party was born from such hikois- those against the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Espiner says a similar issue would work in the Maori Partys favour, but would not be good for the country.

In the absence of that they need to redefine what a post- Foreshore and Seabed Maori Party looks like. That will be about the new leadership.

But Peters could still push ahead with his vows to get rid of programmes such as Whanau Ora, carve-outs for Maori in local body politics and Treaty Settlements - which will give the Maori Party something to grapple with.

Flavell grins when it is suggested Peters could be his partys saviour, saying Peters is one of many ifs and buts in the equation.

Flavell is not overly optimistic of a major issue such as the Foreshore and Seabed arising again.

He says the Maori Party has the background to front up on issues of Maori rights. But is it enough to churn the Maori nation to come over from Labour? Again, we have to see how that rolls out, because it could be again Winston that is a part of the mixture.

He is wary of taking too much hope from the initial reaction to the partys surprise exit and he too says the partys comeback will depend partly on how the Labour Maori MPs perform.

Just because everybody is sad and stuff doesnt translate into winning a seat, so weve got a lot of work to do to position ourselves. Circumstance too will play into it, depending on how the government rolls out and who goes with who and how the Maori MPs in Labour conduct themselves or get gains.

He says if Labour is not in government, it will mean the MPs of all seven of the Maori seats are in Opposition with no influence.

Victory also requires a lot of drudgery, organisation and paperwork.

There has been an initial flurry of determination and enthusiasm to help the Maori Party back. But it has to last.

Former President Pem Bird says the party needs to go back to what worked for it in the past and do a review to ensure it has not become complacent.

The parliamentarians did their job, but the party itself may have lost a wheel or two.

Bird lives in Murupara and had not picked up on any signs Flavell or the Maori Party was in trouble.

He says even his own local branch had got slack - they had not done any membership drives or policy input and meetings had tailed off. We went off the boil. We need to look internally rather than blame external factors.

His branch had since bucked up its game. He said the impact of Ardern was huge.

But we could have mitigated that to some extent by being wide awake. This is about fitness for purpose. There were certain core values that were a point of difference to other parties. And it was a style of politics that made Maori politics Maori.

We didnt engage in any of the ugly adversarial stuff. We talked about mana enhancement and manaakitanga. We need to check ourselves on where our kaupapa [core message] has gone.

Flavell agrees.

We need to go back to our kaupapa and our foundations, and an issue will roll up and we can get some benefits out of that.

The Maori Party will also need to isolate the one or two seats it has the best chance of winning and gun hard for them rather than spread its resources too thinly.

OSullivans name has the most traction in the north - but toppling Labours Kelvin Davis will be no easy task, especially if Davis remains in a high leadership role.

Whether O'Sullivan can get Tamaki Makaurau will be a question the party has to assess - it would also be a credibility hit if O'Sullivan stood and did not win. The party might be better to focus on trying to reclaim Waiariki or Te Tai Hauauru again instead.

Flavells own experience has shown incumbency has its limits and the seats do change hands as the voters deploy the option of split voting to try to maximise representation.

As for Flavell, he will take time to regroup before deciding what to do next.

He has ruled out a return to Parliament but will do what is needed to help the party rebuild.

In the meantime, hell probably find some dishes to do at his marae.

The Foreshore and Seabed Act prompts massive protests by Maori, and Labour MP Tariana Turia crosses the floor before leaving Labour.
She resigns to force-and then win-a by election in her Te Tai Hauauru seat, which Labour does not stand in.

The Hikoi makes their way up Queen St, Auckland city as they protest against the Crown's Seabed & Foreshore Bill in 2011. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Hikoi makes their way up Queen St, Auckland city as they protest against the Crown's Seabed & Foreshore Bill in 2011. Photo / Brett Phibbs


The newly minted Maori Party wins four of the seven Maori seats in its first general election and sets up in Opposition to the Labour Government with Turia, Pita Sharples, Hone Harawira and Te Ururoa Flavell.

Pita Sharples celebrates with supporters at the Maori Party HQ in Manukau during the New Zealand elections in 2005. Photo / Dean Purcell
Pita Sharples celebrates with supporters at the Maori Party HQ in Manukau during the New Zealand elections in 2005. Photo / Dean Purcell


The Maori Party returns with five of the seats, picking up Te Tai Tonga.

National is the only party that can form a government and invites the Maori Party to join. The Maori Party agrees to a "mana-enhancing" arrangement on confidence and supply with National. Its first concession from National is to have the policy of abolishing the Maori seats put on ice as part of that agreement.

Prime Minister elect John Key meets with Maori Party co leaders Tariana Turia, left and Pita Sharples to annouce a support deal for the new government in 2008. Photo / File
Prime Minister elect John Key meets with Maori Party co leaders Tariana Turia, left and Pita Sharples to annouce a support deal for the new government in 2008. Photo / File

The first gain for the Maori Party is symbolic-at the urging of Pita Sharples, John Key allows the Maori flag to be flown fromthe top of the Harbour Bridge and Government buildings on Waitangi Day. The Foreshore and Seabed Act is repealed and replaced by theTakutai Moana Act, setting out a process for Maori to test rights on the foreshore and seabed.

The national Maori (Tino Rangatiratanga) flag flies with the New Zealand Flag on the Auckland Harbour bridge on Waitangi Day 2013. Photo / Greg Bowker
The national Maori (Tino Rangatiratanga) flag flies with the New Zealand Flag on the Auckland Harbour bridge on Waitangi Day 2013. Photo / Greg Bowker

April 2011

Hone Harawira is forced to leave the Maori Party after disagreements with the other MPs and sets up the rival Mana Party. Harawira claims it is because of his objections to the arrangement with National.

Hone Harawira speaks to supporters at the Mana Party launch at Te Mahurehure Marae in Pt Chevalier, Auckland, in 2011. Photo / Chris Loufte
Hone Harawira speaks to supporters at the Mana Party launch at Te Mahurehure Marae in Pt Chevalier, Auckland, in 2011. Photo / Chris Loufte

Election 2011

The Maori Party returns with three seats -Sharples, Turia and Flavell. Mana leader Harawira holds Te Tai Tokerau. National is again the only party able to form a government and does so with Act, United Future and the Maori Party.

Sharples steps down as co-leader and Flavell is elected to replace him.

Turia and Sharples retire from politics. The Maori Party loses both Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makaurau to Labour. Flavell holds Waiariki and co-leader Marama Fox enters on the list. Harawira is also ousted by Labour's Kelvin Davis. For the third time only National can form a government and does so with the same three parties. By now the Maori Party has notched up further wins, including the introduction of WhanauOra to deliver social services, a clampdown on smoking including steep tobacco tax increases and plain packaging legislation, signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, andaministerial committee on poverty.

Maori Party Leaders, Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell in 2015. Photo / File
Maori Party Leaders, Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell in 2015. Photo / File


Despite an agreement with Harawira not to stand against each other, Flavell loses Waiariki and with just 1.1 per cent of the vote, the Maori Party is out of Parliament.