The foreshore party's long growth into realist politics

If all goes to plan Pita Sharples will have a new trophy to take to the Maori party’s annual meeting on Saturday: a constitutional review. It’s been a long time coming.

Hone Harawira last week put it this way: “The Maori Party will lead a constitutional review with a view to ensuring the Treaty of Waitangi is at the centre of that discussion and, hopefully, becomes a central plank in a Treaty-based constitution.”

The review’s terms of reference and personnel were still under wraps at the time of writing so whether Harawira was being wishful or prescient could not be known.

Certainly, elsewhere in his speech, to a conference in Canada, Harawira was wishful: “We currently hold five of the seven Maori seats. It is our intention to win the other two seats in 2011.”

The constitutional review was in the National-Maori party 2008 post-election agreement. It was supposed to have begun in February this year. It reached the ninth floor in May but hit difficulties over what to review and whom to put on it.

The risk for National is a repeat of the 2009 review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act (F&S) by Sir Edward Durie, Richard Boast and Hana O’Regan. They proposed re-opening all losses of customary title to see if title had been fairly extinguished in terms of the Treaty.

National backed away, producing a bill which in effect makes only limited changes to the F&S Act except for adding a right to take a case to the High Court, a course proposed by the F&S Act architect, Michael Cullen, just before he left Parliament in April 2009.

The Maori party has won formal repeal of the act and that is important because the party grew out of anger at that act’s denial of due legal process. But it is not a big change in substance. Harawira has said he will vote against it and some in the party are pushing at least one other MP to join him. The leadership has said it will support the bill, subject to what is said at the select committee, but may reopen the matter in the future.

Meantime ACT demanded an amendment banning charges for access to beaches in which iwi or hapu have an interest. Attorney-General Chris Finlayson said that would be redundant but John Key insisted he draft one.

Key’s intervention points to limits to what National will accept out of the constitutional review.

In April-May Key three times put down boundary pegs: he ruled out even a gradual 50-year transfer to Tuhoe of title to Urewera National Park as part of its settlement for grave injustices and confiscations; he added heavy qualifying riders to the endorsement of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and he countermanded the Auckland royal commission’s recommendation of dedicated Maori seats on the new council.

What does this say to the Maori party as it gathers on Saturday? That it has reached or is close to the limits of what it can extract from National. National will not agree to a “Treaty-based constitution”, except in the formal sense that the Treaty is the founding document legitimising the imposition of constitutional colonial government.

One constitutional change has been going on largely below the radar: a move to iwi/hapu-council co-governance and co-management of waterways in Treaty settlements, in the wake of Cullen’s offer to Waikato river iwi and hapu in 2008. But these are the result of high-level negotiations between the government and iwi, not wins for the Maori party.

The Maori party’s big gain of substance is whanau ora. That holds high promise but will take time to develop and comes with risks of uneven performance and in places failure.

So on Saturday there will be congratulations for the leadership on the totemic wins. But the farsighted will ask what can be extracted from National for a second term after next year’s election which has not already been dealt with or set in train.

The party also faces some sobering challenges.

One is to manage three incompatibilities: be relevant to the iwi leadership forums which deal directly (and a bit snootily) with senior ministers and mostly lean National; represent the interests of the Maori electorate voters who are mostly closer to Labour; and slake its radical supporters’ thirst for real change.

A second challenge is to fend off Labour’s respectability-seeking Shane Jones in Sharples’ Tamaki Makaurau seat and hold Te Tai Tonga which it won in 2008. Labour should keep Nanaia Mahuta’s Hauraki -Waikato and Parekura Horomia’s Ikaroa-Rawhiti. Tainui boss Tukuroirangi Morgan intervened to overturn a Hauraki-Waikato selection, leading to a legal challenge.

A third challenge is to uncover and promote credible successors to Sharples and Tariana Turia, who won’t be around forever.

And, fourth, the party has yet to build the strong institutions and numerous, committed, fee-paying membership it needs to be long-lived.

It’s all part of growing into realist politics. A party born of anger out on the margins and now with some trophies has yet to fit securely in the power system.