Juggling expectations: a small party's curse

The Maori party was formed in opposition to the Foreshore and Seabed Act (F&S). Now it is split over what to do about its replacement. This is both a classic dilemma of small parties and a specific matter of how far indigenous rights run.

Two years into its coalition with Labour, the Alliance began to come apart. Six months later it split. One wing, claiming to be the true standard-bearer, evaporated. The other, smaller, wing, pragmatically accepting the limits of a small party’s influence, stayed in government.

Two years into its support deal with National, the Maori party claims many gains but a minority wing of the party thinks it is failing its true mission, the full restoration of indigenous rights. Hone Harawira will campaign among the party’s flaxroots to build opposition to the Marine and Coastal Area Bill to try to push the party caucus to oppose it.

That bill, now before a select committee, repeals the hated F&S Act. It creates a customary title which iwi can seek in the High Court or by negotiation — but under such tight conditions that few can succeed.

This is now roughly also the position of the Labour party, which in government negotiated with Ngati Porou a near approximation to customary title and now says it should have left open the High Court route. The new bill tweaks the F&S conditions — more than some Maori critics acknowledge and less than some non-Maori critics claim.

This is not enough for Harawira and others in the Maori party, notably lawyer Annette Sykes, who severely chastised the leadership on Friday evening and Saturday at the annual meeting. In essence they say the foreshore and seabed are Maori land and the F&S Act was a confiscation, reinforced in the new bill. For them it is not just a matter of principle but of inalienable indigenous rights.

The party leaders also don’t like National’s bill. Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia said they fought for more but, with five MPs in a Westminster system, this was the most they could get. So, Sharples said emotionally and Turia said in a clinical intervention of power and ice, take what you can get now and come back to fight another day. “A step at a time even if they are baby steps,” said Rahui Katene.

In the unlikely event they vote against, they said, National will kill what it says is the Maori party’s bill. The dissidents prefer that to complicity in “bad law”.

Harawira argues the indigenous rights issue is so deep that voting for National’s bill may cost the party votes — though where those votes would go is unclear. (Paradoxically, if the Maori party were to vote against, Labour might conceivably finesse it by backing at least something better than the F&S.)

The split highlights a big issue for the party: how to build votes. Several people made Sharples’ point, that if the party wins and holds all seven seats — and, better, gets an eighth seat through the Maori option after next year’s census — it will have the balance of power and thus leverage on successive governments (for as long as the Maori seats survive).

But first the Maori party has to do two things highlighted on Saturday. It must get more Maori on the roll, which it hopes would be votes for it and win it the two seats Labour holds. Then in the Maori option it needs to get more to go on the Maori roll than the unconvincing 62 per cent in 2006.

To do either requires feet on the ground and voices on phones. Attendance on Saturday numbered in tens, not hundreds. That was not evidence of a flaxroots wildfire — more like scattered clumps of embers.

So how to fire up the flaxroots? This is the classic dilemma of small parties which centre themselves on an ideology or a programme: the divide between realists and fundamentalists.

In the Maori party that divide pits the leaders, Te Ururoa Flavell and Katene as realists and Harawira and his backers as fundamentalists. Sometimes fundamentalists win, as the minority Leninists did in Russia in 1917. But that is rare, especially in a majoritarian democracy. Labour was divided for a quarter-century around 1900 before settling for realism.

In this Turia is the key. While Sharples gets qualified wins on totemic issues — themselves significant in that they have been wrested from a conservative government — Turia has got whanau ora.

Whanau ora is iwi/hapu/whanau delivery of social services, with a focus on poor and poorly functioning households. It builds on the Ministry of Social Development’s community link centres. If — and there are many ingredients in that “if” — whanau ora succeeds in bridging agency boundaries and getting real results, it will be celebrated, not just by Maori.

Judging by the lights in the eyes of some on Saturday, whanau ora is as big as the F&S, which doesn’t do much for kids in strife. Whanau ora, done well, might deliver on the Treaty of Waitangi’s original promise of prosperity to large numbers of Maori who miss out.

And it is, in a modern and realistic sense, indigenous.