More than once at the Maori Party conference over the weekend, someone stood up and said the party needed to be clear about what it stood for.

That was never a problem in the early days. It stood in opposition to Labour's foreshore and seabed proposals.

Now it has an identity crisis.

It is now talking about more explicitly broadening its support base to Pakeha, targeting the party vote instead of the seven Maori seats, of which it has three, and its consultant Matthew Jansen has even suggested changing its name some time in the future.


But the problem remains: what does it stand for?

In the early days its support base covered a breadth of views from the hard left who railed against the "brown table" to the more traditional who viewed the growing wealth of iwi as a positive thing and a modern byproduct of tino rangatiratanga.

The party's own view of itself as the embodiment of the Crown's Treaty of Waitangi partner, which it promoted quite openly in 2008, has quietly faded away.

In reality it has seen itself more as a facilitator of the Crown and iwi groups.

But with the rising influence of the iwi leadership group and the iwi chairs forum, no go-between is necessary.

The party expended a lot of energy in its first term in government with National addressing its internal battle with maverick MP Hone Harawira.

Now that he has departed, you might think the Maori Party's identity would be clearer but that has not been the effect.

The resentment against him was still palpable at the Maori Party's hui at Papawai Marae in Greytown. His knack of gaining publicity, of putting the boot into the Maori Party clearly rankles.

Co-leader Tariana Turia says she is still deeply offended by him labelling her and the party "house niggers" recently - offended enough to suggest he wears glasses for appearance's sake.

Turia told the Herald last week that the conference needed to address succession planning but it did not.

It did take a positive step to involve the wider party in candidate selections, not to leave the whole process to locals.

That lends itself to a new strategic approach rather than continuing with the notion that every local decision, selection, action is sacrosanct.

That is rooted in the concept of "iwi-tanga" as Turia put it at the weekend, but it also creates tensions with a nationwide party trying to build "kotahitanga" - national unity.

The Maori Party leadership, including president Pem Bird, knows the party has been drifting and it needs a jolt.

It has given itself a year to rebuild membership, to be ready to face election year in 2014.

Until the party is absolutely clear what it stands for, that will be a challenge for the few activists it still has.

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