A loose party and a loose coalition

Back in February Bill English is said to have told public service chief executives the ministers they were dealing with were a “loose coalition of the self-employed”. Pita Sharples has been showing us how loose.

Sharples is a man with a mission: to elevate the status of Maori. Maori Television winning the rugby world cup rights fitted that. Maori phrases on the airwaves underline to foreigners this nation’s cultural point of distinction.

Sharples has another mission: to promote Maori economic development. Te Puni Kokiri chief executive Leith Comer agrees. Television sports rights make money.

More generally, iwi are now competently managing Treaty of Waitangi settlement assets and becoming a real commercial weight. There is evidence of growing individual entrepreneurship. Sharples’ academic specialty was education, a critical ingredient in economic development.

This all adds up to a bigger and more visible place in our culture, society and economy — and, as a result, our politics. Sharples’ big mission and that of the party he co-leads is to change our politics.

The Maori party sees itself as the Treaty partner come to Parliament, representing a parallel people with a distinct cultural identity who lay claim to cultural, and in turn political, equality.

It is the mingling of that political change mission with John Key’s “loose coalition” style of political management that caused heartburn these past 10 days.

Key said that even if he had wanted to countermand the $3 million diversion of funds, he would not have because ministers are in charge of their baseline funding.

That statement suggests ministers can do what they will once Bill English has signed off the baseline money. That doesn’t quite square with the cabinet manual which states that “in all areas of their work individual ministers represent and implement official government policy” and that “acceptance of ministerial office means accepting collective responsibility”.

There is an “agree to disagree” provision for support parties, which the Alliance established in 2000 with its vote against the Singapore free trade agreement. The Maori party has voted against the government on a number of issues and is angry that the legislation setting up the super-Auckland council does not reserve seats for Maori.

But offering a $3 million subsidy to Maori Television’s rugby world cup rights was not an agreement to disagree with government policy. It made government policy. Other ministers are bound by it. Rodney Hide begged to agree to disagree — well, not exactly begged because Hide isn’t a beggar.

The Maori Television affair reflects the way Key runs his cabinet. His style is much more decentralised than any in recent times and a far cry from Helen Clark’s firm grip.

Ministers are entrusted to run their portfolios as they see fit (within English’s fiscal parameters and relevant committee overview). Some do it with flair, some micromanage, some carefully calibrate their actions to cabinet policy, some struggle, some spring discomforting surprises on their Prime Minister, some push minor party policy.

Hide has been especially good at the last, getting more — at least on paper — out of his colleagues than his five-person team could have expected.

The Maori party has been less skilled at it. Its wins have been more iconic than hard policy.

Nevertheless, some policy is coming through. Co-leader Tariana Turia’s ambitious and culturally distinct whanau ora programme is being developed by a taskforce. She has substantial funding for innovations in delivery of health services to Maori.

Key is keen to give Turia scope — including scope for some risks — because he is very keen on the relationship, which he thinks he can build into a durable alliance with iwi and with Maori voters.

So he works at it on a personal basis. He chose a deal with Sharples on the emissions trading scheme ahead of one with Labour.

Sharples subsequently found he had got less in that deal in the detail than he thought he had.

Deal-making is a large part of politics. Key and Chris Finlayson are keen to build a close, deal-making relationship with the iwi leadership group and other leading iwi figures.

That could in theory parallel Key’s deal-making with the Maori party, though some in high places in iwi have doubts about Sharples and the party. Iwi operate on the very level of a special relationship with the government (Crown), exemplifying at deal-making level the change the Maori party seeks at the political level.

This is not a zero-sum matter and so is not a negative for the party at its annual conference next Saturday. The momentum so far is positive.

But delegates might pause to ask what English’s “loose coalition” implies.

Sure, there is room for Sharples and Turia to do their own thing and Key is determined to keep the personal relationship sweet. But doing your own thing is less durable in politics than hard deals. Which will be apparent if the coalition gets too loose.