The Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection is shaping up to be a great pointer to what could happen at next year's general election. For one, we should get a look at how much of a Maori independent voice there will be in Parliament.
Polling shows the Labour-Green bloc and National are neck and neck. John Key has no viable coalition partners except the Maori Party. If his allies lose their foothold, his only hope is Winston Peters. Good luck with that.
The byelection is a cakewalk for Labour. Parekura Horomia's personal vote was 60 per cent last election. Although it doesn't necessarily transfer to a new candidate, Labour did coast home with 50 per cent of the party vote in 2011.
Though the byelection is on June 29, the next Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP is effectively anointed when Labour names its candidate. The frontrunners are Hastings District councillor Henare O'Keefe; the second biggest iwi's chief executive Meka Whaitiri; and TVNZ broadcaster Shane Taurima.
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Taurima has two advantages. An electorate spread from East Cape to Lower Hutt means face and name recognition is crucial. Taurima's face has beamed in via television for years as TV One's Maori news frontman. He's also the pick of the party hierarchy.
Labour's two key opponents will be Maori Party candidate Na Raihania and Mana's Te Hamua Nikora. Last election Raihania scored 23 per cent of the vote.
Nikora is also a broadcaster and an impressive performer. The Greens will also contest. National and NZ First sit it out.
So here's the stakes. Labour needs to win more than 50 per cent to claim real victory. If it does it could realistically say it has a chance of winning all the Maori electorates next year.
For the Maori Party to claim any victory, it must win at least the same vote it got last election and come second. Mana also needs second place to become the challenger to Labour at the next election.
If the combined vote of the Maori Party and Mana is less than Labour's, then both parties will be in trouble in the Maori seats next year. The long-term problem could be averted if Mana gets second place and Hone Harawira uses this to pressure what's left of the Maori Party into reconciliation talks for a united front at the general election. That spells bad news for Key, too.
If no arrangement is made, many Maori Party supporters could desert them as a lost cause. A good byelection for Labour reinforces the view that National will lose the next election. The downside is that the dream of an independent Maori voice in Parliament could be relegated to the dustbin of history.