Task for Turia: build permanent influence

Tariana Turia is fixing a personal health matter and will continue as Maori party co-leader after the 2011 election. The party needs that.

The party was born in anger and has been sustained in aspiration. Now it needs to drill foundations into the substrate of politics. That means members, money and organisation — and a message embedded in a long-term strategy.

For a party claiming equal cultural status, claiming to represent 15 per cent of the population and claiming 22,000 enrolled members, the annual general meeting (conference) in Auckland on Saturday was thinly attended: around 100, most from close by.

Sure, it costs to send a delegation to Auckland and Maori are disproportionately less-well-off and least-well-off. But, as Turia pointed out twice on Saturday, “a lot of our people” — meaning Maori in general — “are well-heeled” and many are members. There were some smart suits and designer dresses among Saturday’s 100. And a delegate noted that there are a lot of well-heeled Maori corporations.

But, Turia said, the party had just enough money to fund its electorate campaigns (though it did end the year in the black, a lesson for the Labour party). “We have 22,000 members and we can’t raise money.”

All small parties start with these problems. Many don’t grow beyond the flush of youth. The Greens were righteously penurious and structure-shy but in recent years have made their party sustainable (financially, that is). They should even be able to survive a spell out of Parliament.

The rise of an educated and well-paid Maori middle class is potential raw material for a core capable of building systems and converting some of the 22,000 from numbers on a roll into the “footsoldiers” president Whatarangi Winiata said “fell far short of the numbers we needed” in 2008.

Without that, the hopes Winiata has for the next eight years are pipedreams: in 2011 pick up the two Maori seats it does not have, in 2012 get enough voters to switch to the Maori roll in the post-census option to add more Maori seats, in 2014 to win all those plus some list seats and in 2017 win 15 per cent of the vote (to match the Maori population share) and 18 seats.

That’s a long stretch from 2.4 per cent in 2008. Tiopira McDowell, who is writing the party’s pre-history and history, put the challenge this way: to become a “permanent government”, by which he meant to be always third in size and always big enough to make the major party in power take note. That needs political professionalism.

There is movement. A taskforce reviewed the last election and came up with 17 recommendations. There is a proposal for an endowment fund. But if the party is genuinely seeking permanence, it will have to drive organisation down to the flaxroots and keep the flax flourishing.

It will also need to mature and deepen in two other ways.

One is to be taken seriously where it matters among Maori.

That means being accepted as useful by the iwi leadership group, which deals directly with the government on large matters of policy and interest. Some doubt the party adds much — though its decision to back the government’s emissions trading changes reflects iwi fishing, farming and forestry imperatives conveyed to the MPs.

To convince iwi leaders, the party really does have to deliver the “mana enhancement” it claims is at the core of its alliance with National.

And then it has to balance these big-business interests with demonstrably meeting the social and economic needs of less-well-off Maori. If not, Labour will lay claim to those votes. Shacking up with a government which attenuates labour and ACC rights is not a good look.

The second way the Maori party needs to mature and deepen if it is to chart a route to “permanent government” is in managing its relationship with National. That was badly frayed last week.

Noticeably, John Key was not invited to the AGM and didn’t invite himself. He went to the ACT conference in March and promised it a “bonfire of regulations”. Rodney Hide’s haul of goodies from Key is impressive and is set to be enhanced with competition for ACC.

That is where Turia comes in. By contrast with Pita Sharples’ charismatic but often unfocused and confusing operational style and focus on iconic matters rather than the practical, Turia’s quietly fierce persistence has stacked up some wins. The most notable is the whanau ora programme which, if it works for Maori, could have lessons for broader social assistance and health programmes. Note also the added help for low-income households in the emissions trading legislation.

Turia said on Saturday she doesn’t “think about winning or losing” in her dealings with National. She thinks about “making progress” toward Maori party goals.

A delegate, urging Winiata to stay as president instead of retire as he had hoped, said: “We are at a delicate stage. We could lose everything.” That has happened to iwi many times in the past. The Maori party carries an historic responsibility.