Just what has the Maori party really won?

Which major party is harder-nosed on bicultural issues: the supposedly soft-centred left-of-centre Labour party or the supposedly hard-nosed right-of-centre National party?

The answer will be obvious from the mere posing of the question.

The Maori party hates the Labour party for its foreshore and seabed law. It basks in the National party’s indulgence on whanau ora, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, repeal of the foreshore law and, still to come as this was written, a constitutional review.

It doesn’t like much of National’s social and economic legislation. It condemns National’s refusal of designated Maori seats on the super-Auckland council. But Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples say gains are gains.

And in behind the Maori party, requiring its respect, are the iwi leaders forums, who have a special relationship with John Key that is closer than they had with Helen Clark. The party did the iwi leaders’ bidding on Nick Smith’s climate change legislation, with only partial offsets for the impact on its less-well-off constituents.

But how durable is National’s indulgence? How much is symbolic and how much for real?

* Sharples said the sign-up to the indigenous rights declaration was with “no caveats”. But the government’s affirming statement made it subject to the “legal and constitutional frameworks” and Key called it “symbolic and non-binding”, “a small step”.

* Key said iwi should not get their hopes too high on the foreshore and if “reasonable agreement” wasn’t reached Labour’s law would stay. Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia trumpeted it as a triumph.

* Maori party luminary Naida Glavish called whanau ora “one of the most significant milestones in the history of Maori since the signing of the Treaty. Sharples called it “revolutionary” because “based on kaupapa and tikanga”. John Key and Bill English insisted it would be available to “all families in need”, would not be bulk-funded through a separate, unaccountable, Maori agency and funding would be less than originally touted. Sharples said a more “courageous” government would allow Maori-only access.

In each case Key’s version prevails for now. Nevertheless, for the rest of this parliamentary term the Maori party is likely to be content with its gains. In politics symbolic gains can have real value; for Maori even more so.

Moreover, there is some cause for contentment.

If whanau ora works as intended, it could eventually make a real difference. That it will be developed out of existing Ministry of Social Development community link programmes gives some reason to think it might work if well serviced and monitored.

The government has said it may negotiate directly on foreshore/seabed claims. Michael Cullen negotiated a sweet deal with Ngati Porou (better than court action would have delivered if Cullen had not legislated and, Ngati Porou says, probably better than National’s initial preferred line). Finlayson has been generous in his approach on other Treaty claims to the point where some officials think he has contracted a dose of what Winston Peters used to call sickly white liberalism.

And courts and politicians tend over time to give rising credence to international agreements, however “aspirational” and without force they might be initially. Expect the declaration to be used as a moral argument in Treaty and other indigenous rights wrangles.

So, however far short of its stated aims Maori party members and supporters might feel the party has fallen, come the next election, there is a basis for sticking with Key for now.

But what about National itself? So far there is little angst in the party, in part because of Key’s personal standing and his apparent inroads into the Maori vote by proxy via Sharples’ and Turia’s commitment.

Over time, however, older instincts may surface — as they did when National went out of office even though having approved Jim Bolger and Sir Douglas Graham doing deals with Ngai Tahu and Tainui.

Meantime, Labour is vilified by Maori and the Maori party for having passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act and having refused to sign the indigenous rights declaration.

Labour took a hard-nosed and almost certainly correct view that National’s hard politics claiming foreshore claims, if uncurbed, would stop barbecuing on the beach would lose Labour the 2005 election. And it took a hard-nosed — and correct — view that, without a caveat which would hollow out the signing of the declaration (as National has in effect done), a sign-up would widen land rights claims beyond the Treaty criteria.

Sometimes roles in politics reverse. For a time.