His name means hammerhead shark and he has shown he can act like an alpha predator, moving in swiftly and efficiently to do what has to be done. But though Te Ururoa Flavell has ruthlessly torn asunder any aspirations his fellow MP Hone Harawira might have had for leadership of the Maori Party, his actions have created a carnage the party is still struggling to deal with.

"We haven't spoken too much. He's gone his way and we've gone ours - so be it," says Flavell. It was he who ended things with Harawira in January when he laid a complaint with the party's national council.

Flavell has known Harawira since boarding at St Stephen's School, Bombay.

"Hone was one year ahead. I wouldn't say we were close friends, but close enough to stand shoulder to shoulder."

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Following Flavell's complaint, Harawira was expelled from the party, resigned his seat, formed the Mana party and forced a by-election in the Tai Tokerau electorate on June 25. The Maori Party candidate standing against Harawira is 64-year-old kaumatua Solomon Tipene.

Flavell claims to have no regrets. "Things have deteriorated to the point where all bets are off and we just carry on."

Was leadership what this very public, often unseemly battle of wills was about? "No it was not," Flavell says firmly from his spacious, seventh floor Bowen House office in Wellington, when we first meet in February. "I've pledged my support to the leadership full stop, unreserved. I'll stand by this leadership until they decide they want to step aside."

But if Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia do go, it seems as though I'm looking at the future leader of the Maori Party. "It is still to be determined," says Flavell, bowing his head. "To be honest, all I've spoken about with my wife is to do nine years. But if it comes to the calling, if it is to be, so be it."

The battle with Harawira, says Flavell, was about public disagreements culminating in a Sunday Star Times article in which Harawira declared he was constantly being told "that the Maori Party is coming off the rails". Harawira highlighted the downside of being a coalition partner: having to put up with "anti-worker, anti-beneficiary, and anti-environment" legislation.

Flavell was sick and tired of being classed as one who had sold out. "I absolutely reject that claim, full stop. Against our track record, no one can say that." No one, he adds, could accuse Harawira of it either. "It's just how we achieve those things - how we get there is the difference."

The pathway Flavell has taken to get here - battling to save a party seat - is not without confusion. His father died when he was 10 and Flavell grew up on family land at Ngongotaha, Rotorua, in a home surrounded by baches, with his mother and his grandmother, Ranginui Leonard, whose portrait takes pride of place in his office. "In that environment I felt it would have been better to be a Pakeha, because they had a lot of things and my mother struggled."

At St Stephen's, Flavell realised his leadership potential as head boy and captain of the First XV. He still plays for the parliamentary rugby team, does Maori martial arts, and works out as often as he can. "I'm scared of getting too big and too lazy."

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He went on to play two seasons for Auckland and was in the team that played the Springboks in 1981. At the time, he admits he was politically naive. "I saw the protest and was wondering what was going on because South Africa was so far away."

He was similarly confused about the 1975 land march and the 1977-78 Bastion Point occupation, despite attending lectures at Auckland University by Maori rights advocate Ranginui Walker.

"At Bastion Point, at the hikoi, I was behind a lamp post 200 metres away watching it happen. I wasn't in it because I didn't understand it."

If he was a slow learner in politics, "when the penny started to drop" Flavell took up the cause of Maori rights with vigour. His radicalisation began at the Post-Primary Teachers' Association. With Ken Mair and Bill Hamilton, Flavell formed the Tino Rangatiratanga Education Authority which created headlines in 1990 such as "Waitara High School labelled racist by Maori Authority".

There was more hot water in 1996, when he returned to his old school as principal and put up a flagpole flying the Tino Rangatiratanga flag - "so the boys woke up and said: 'Today I'm going to be proud to be Maori'."

Flavell clashed with the school board and the church authorities and feels some bitterness that he wasn't given the resources he felt he needed. "I've only ever been back once."

He may have missed Bastion Point, but Flavell was at the Moutoa Gardens occupation in Whanganui in 1995 - filing live reports for 94.8FM Te Korimako O Taranaki, the Maori radio station he helped found. In those days James William Ben Flavell was Jim or Jimmy at home. At St Stephen's he was Jimbo. Teaching, he was Hemi. One day, doing a talkback show on 94.8FM about decolonisation, he said: "As of tomorrow, as part of the revolution, all kids should be known by their ancestral names, because there is a heap of history in there."

He changed his name to Te Ururoa in recognition of his father and his whakapapa to the Ngapuhi chief of Whangaroa and brother-in-law of Hongi Hika. Had he heard that on Waitangi Day some Ngapuhi were so annoyed about his complaint against Harawira they were calling for him to hand the name back? "I didn't hear that," says Flavell.

Was it fair to say some Ngapuhi were quite angry with him? "I haven't heard it, but I'd understand it."

Flavell left Taranaki Polytechnic where he was head of Maori studies after "a falling out philosophically". "It was regretful, because I left fairly bitter, having put so much energy in getting things up and running." Strife: is this a pattern in his working life? "Battles find me for some reason," he laughs. "I like to think if there is a job to be done, I can do it."

Once again a battle has found Flavell, a challenge has been faced and casualties abound - not just Harawira, but former friends including Rotorua activist and lawyer Annette Sykes, now supporting the Mana party. The rift is significant. Sykes was one of those who nominated Flavell for the Waiariki seat.

"There are a lot of other people besides Annette Sykes in the Waiariki region who are absolutely behind the Maori Party." But he is surprised by Sykes' defection. "I didn't expect it, really, because we did have a relationship once upon a time and we were all fairly together on the same waka."

Now the Mana and Maori parties are clearly on different waka. Flavell is adamant that being in coalition is the only way to get gains for Maori and in opposition "you get nothing".

He's frank, determined and clearly prepared to step up when needed. What's not so clear is whether, as in his student days, Flavell is misreading the political upheavals surrounding him. As for Hone and the hammerhead, there's no standing shoulder to shoulder now.

Te Ururoa Flavell
Maori Party, Member for Waiariki since 2005

Born: Tokoroa, December 7, 1955.
Lives: Ngongotaha, Rotorua, with wife Erana, 5 children.
Iwi affiliations: Ngapuhi, Ngati Rangiwewehi-Te Arawa