It is a full month today since it was reported that Hone Harawira had ducked out of official duties on a parliamentary delegation to the European Union and spent a weekend in Paris. It will be a month tomorrow since he took leave of his senses in an email to a critic who promptly made his unsavoury sentiments and filthy language public. It is astonishing that incidents so minor in the scheme of things should occupy us so long but there is one thing that remains to be said.

The Maori Party has handled this affair well. At its conclusion yesterday, the party was intact and its cavalier MP clearly chastened. Events could have developed quite differently.

As soon as the email became public, the party leadership announced it was considering disciplinary action, despite having already received an apology from Mr Harawira for any harm he had done the party by his choice of words. Clearly its frustration with him ran much deeper than the latest embarrassment.

The leadership first demanded he make a public apology, which he did at Auckland University's marae on November 11. But it did nothing to assuage those who said they were offended at his reference to "white mother****ers" and did not stem the flow of messages to the party that co-leader Tariana Turia called "equally racist and abusive".

The party's president, Whatarangi Winiata, went to a meeting with its Te Tai Tokerau electorate committee where he encountered the full force of local loyalty to the MP. Professor Winiata responded with equal force, making it clear to the MP and his electorate supporters that if they believed he was accountable only to them he should resign from the party.

Professor Winiata and Mrs Turia made the same point publicly, making it clear they were prepared to expel him if he would not recognise his obligations to the party. That was a courageous threat. Mr Harawira would not be the first northern Maori MP to strike out on his own. Though the subsequent career of the late Matiu Rata would not recommend it, Mr Harawira is a headstrong character. His expulsion could have made him a martyr for radical recalcitrance.

The Maori Party could have lost much support from those of its following who share Mr Harawira's known distaste for the partnership with a National-led Government. And with a caucus of just five, the party would certainly have lost some wider credibility if it could not keep such a small team together.

All this it risked on the day it dared Mr Harawira to walk away if he would not submit to its discipline. The leaders' courage was quickly rewarded. Mr Harawira was clearly shaken by the ultimatum and could not argue with its logic. If he considered himself accountable only to his electorate, the honourable course was to quit the party. He said he was determined to stay.

Instead of a rift, the ensuing weeks have witnessed a drawn-out ordeal of reconciliation in which the MP has had to agree to conditions relayed to him by lesser party officials. His loyal electorate chairwoman, Rahuia Kapa, once complained that Mr Harawira had done enough apologising. "Pretty soon he's going to be down on his puku crawling." That comment has proved prophetic.

Yesterday, he issued his third apology and this time it was unequivocal. In the way of these things it seemed more abject than the offence warranted but this incident was about more than meets the eye. It has been a test of the Maori Party's status as a competent, respectable and effective participant in national politics. It may even prove to be the last gasp of mindless antagonism.

There is reason to hope that when Mr Harawira returns to the party in the new year, he will be better for this experience and never look back.