The hard task of honing Hone

John Key, annoyed by Hone Harawira, has bid us focus on “real” issues. Either he hasn’t figured there is a real issue in the Harawira fracas or he is being disingenuous.

The real issue is not that Harawira skived off to Paris on a taxpayer-paid trip to Europe. We benefit if he comes back richer in his European heritage.

The real issue is not his abuse of Buddy Mikaere or his urge to shoot Phil Goff. That exasperates liberals trying to be bicultural and encourages anti-Maori to come from under the stones where they have been since Don Brash’s took his one-law-for-all line to the political grave. But abuse is not the real political issue — politics is a business of abuse.

The real issue isn’t even Harawira’s membership or not of the Maori party caucus. Sure, the leaders and president have been sideswiped once too often by this scion of a radical family. Iwi leaders don’t approve either. But whether Harawira stays or goes is of keener interest to Labour, covetous of his seat, than to National.

The real issue is the coherence and durability of Key’s government.

Harawira’s conduct is not directly Key’s business, though behind the curtain he keeps in close touch with the leaders. The Maori party is a separate entity from National, with very different aims, ambitions and voter base and Harawira is a backbench member of that separate entity and so twice removed from prime ministerial purview.

But Key and National do want a healthy, constructive Maori party they can deal with. National hopes Key’s personality and calibrated concessions to the Maori party will reshape the political landscape by in effect detaching a segment of lower socioeconomic voters from Labour’s side of the spectrum and adding them to National by proxy — as Winston Peters did briefly in the 1990s but couldn’t hold them.

If the Maori party loses cohesion and then votes, Key will not reshape that part of politics.

The Maori party has a difficult line to walk. It must be true to its claim to be the “Treaty partner come to Parliament” but also operate within Parliament’s conventions.

As a support party it can agree to disagree with National and has disagreed rather a lot since it signed up almost exactly a year ago. But Harawira isn’t an agree-to-disagree type: he disagrees fundamentally with National. He is essentially a practitioner of extra-parliamentary politics. You would expect no less of an ageing radical whose radical mother says she rings him every day.

A loose parallel is the difficulty the left of the Alliance had living with Labour in coalition after 1999. Agreeing to disagree wasn’t enough. The left actually disagreed and the Alliance split. Jim Anderton and Matt Robson stayed on, in parliamentary politics.

Parliament and government are about power: who has it, who exercises it and who influences it. Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples are determined to be in the power structure, where they can get things done — but that requires the party, Turia said on Friday, “to follow procedure and have consistency”. “It’s not about whether you disagree but how you disagree.”

Harawira is more comfortable outside the power structure than in it. That is valid politics and at times triggers big changes. But it doesn’t fit inside parliamentary politics. “Hone has placed himself outside the party,” Sharples said.

It is in parliamentary politics where Key must do his reshaping. For that he needs coherence. He needs a Maori party that can work parliamentary politics.

First, Key has space. Even without Harawira, 58 National plus four Maori plus Peter Dunne is a majority — without counting in ACT (itself an admixture of economic libertarians and law-and-order hardliners).

Second, Key has time. The electorate can for now overlook the recent muddles: Rodney Hide’s perk-boosting, Bill English’s house allowance rort, Richard Worth’s waywardness, Nick Smith’s false starts on bills, Gerry Brownlee’s disregard of the Greens and Murray McCully’s double hospital pass on televising the rugby world cup.

While voters are enamoured with a new country leader, error-prone ministers and support parties having convulsions do not turn them off. Labour’s vote went up in 2002 after the Alliance split.

So Key has time to deepen the nexus with his support parties and build a cohesive government. Some National ministers are in fact linking across parties very well in their portfolios. Some are starting to take a keener interest in Hide’s role in regulatory reform — aware a radical bill is set to follow his radical reform agreement with English noted here in September.

But in politics sideshows sometimes rewrite the main act. Too many distractions and slips eventually become a defining characteristic. That is the spectre for Key’s loose government and most unusual three-way shack-up. To keep his three-legged runners synchronised will need tough-minded management, sooner rather than later.

That is the real issue with Harawira. It’s a Key issue.