Can the Maori party succeed?

The Treaty partner has come to Parliament. That is how Maori party president Whata Winiata sees his party — as a symbol of a parallel politics.

How well the four Maori MPs navigate the opportunity and challenge their success last year delivered them could have profound implications not just for the party but for politics and the nation. And this will be the year that is essentially decided.

The logic of MMP for Maori has always been for a separate grouping to hold the Maori electorates and eventually a 5 per cent party vote. New Zealand First’s clean sweep in 1996 was a false start on false premises.

The loss of foreshore and seabed freehold title rights was a stronger (though negative) premise. It generated a credible parliamentary political force. If the four MPs can now build a coherent positive project and stick to it, their wins may have been the 2005 election’s most important outcome.

History says they will fail. From the initial contact with the British onwards, iwi and individual Maori were divided in their responses.

Some used the British to settle old scores. Some went along with the British to get technology and get rich. Some fought the British to preserve their land, their economy, their autonomy and their tikanga.

There are still many divisions. There are Maori who are Maori only statistically. There are Maori whose primary interest is to make money. There are Maori who say they are not Maori but ensure they are on their iwi roll. There are Maori who are Maori but don’t make much of it. There are Maori who tap into their marae but it is not central to their lives. There are Maori for whom their Maori heritage is the core of their being.

Essentially, the Maori party represents the last two of these categories.

At its core it focuses on indigenous rights, on establishing and defending the notion of “partnership” between Maori and the Crown, on maintaining a distinction between Maori and others. That is both an ethnic and a constitutional argument.

The party could not be otherwise focused, having grown out of the foreshore battle.

And it is this dimension, that it upholds Maoritanga and represents Maori at the national seat of power, that attracted wide support or goodwill among Maori, including among many who did not and would not vote for it.

Of course, Parekura Horomia and Co in Labour’s ranks also represent Maori and are deeply enmeshed in iwi and marae life and tradition and in the tribal power structure. They are real Maori representing Maori.

But they are also Labour. And that splits their loyalties. They must be loyal to the party which supports their candidatures. Also, by being in a “mainstream” party, they must be loyal to the nation as a whole.

Maori are part of the nation just as gays and bowling clubs and smokers are part of the nation. Logically there should be no more difficulty for Maori Labour MPs in their loyalties than for, say, Tim Barnett.

But in the Winiata formulation Maori are more than part of the nation. They are partners and therefore in some sense in a parallel nation. Some call iwi “first nations”.

The Maori party MPs make their primary loyalty to Maori, however defined.

But therein lies the rub. They are four. Even if the party clean-sweeps the eight or nine Maori seats at the next election there will be 111 or 112 other MPs whose primary loyalty is not to Maori.

So the challenge in front of those four MPs in this term is:

* to develop, out of the swirling pre-election sentiment that gave them momentum as an electoral movement, a durable and organised party, in Parliament (as a single entity, not four MPs) and in the electorates (as an efficient structure);

* to set limited tactical goals and achieve some of them, so that they can demonstrate more than sentiment to voters in 2008 — which will require them to understand and work the dynamics of parliamentary politics;

* to avoid getting tarred with either a Labour or National brush — and both will from time to time try to coopt them;

* to convince “mainstream” New Zealanders, which includes a large proportion of Maori, that they don’t want to unpick the fragile fabric of a nascent nation — which includes

* to promote Maori to be prosperous and dignified citizens of the modern, internationalised world, not just rehabilitated indigenes.

Set this challenge in the context of this society’s changing culture and colour: there are many more Maori (and Pacific people) and proportionately more of the Maori feel and act Maori. Maori culture is starting genuinely to influence “mainstream” culture. A generation from now we will be much more of the Pacific, not just in it.

If the Maori party thrives this term, wins more seats next time and learns how to use the balance of power wisely and for carefully delineated objectives, it might prosper from that change — and thereby change our politics, too.

Alongside that, how the government handles the economy and crime and education and Australia is small beer.