Can the purists come in from the fringes?

Purity is what counts out on the fringes. Don Brash wants to bring purity to John Key’s government. Hone Harawira wants to bring purity to representation of Maori.

Political purists feel morally superior but, unless the society they operate in goes badly mad, which is not about to happen here, they have to settle for part-measures or irrelevance.

Don Brash had a religious upbringing and approaches his politics with certitudes of the sort found in holy books. A compromise is not finality. It is a step on the path to righteousness.

For as long as he leads ACT (or whatever he renames it) and is supporting or part of a National-led government, he will push small-government, light-regulation in line with the economic catechism he came across while doing his doctorate.

This is a super-rational position, founded in elegant economic theory. National is a conservative party accommodating a wide range of attitudes. It at most sees Brash’s objectives as tendencies, to be adjusted to its need to win and stay in power.

Brash couldn’t win power for National. John Key, a compromiser, could.

Harawira comes from a tradition of protest activism for indigenous rights, which take precedence over other rights on the basis that they predated colonisation and were overridden by force. Some international theory backs that position.

In prominent Harawira supporter Annette Sykes’ legal book iwi never voluntarily relinquished title to the foreshore and seabed and thus no true Maori party could ever vote for legislation formalising extinction of that title. Hence the fury over the Maori party’s compromise.

Harawira has linked this to action on behalf of poor Maori. This has won him support among strong believers in equality who make a moral argument that those described by one speaker at the Mana party launch on Saturday as “at the bottom of the heap” get much more of society’s spoils. This, too, has theory behind it, crystallised in Karl Marx’s analysis and much developed since him.

Those two forces joined on Saturday. It was a big turnout, much bigger than at recent Maori party conferences. There was energy verging on fervour and much good humour.

The enemies were Labour and the Maori party, Labour for leaving too many in poverty after nine years in power and the Maori party for trucking with National.

The traditional left has always had its “splittists”, going back to the early days of last century and most recently represented in NewLabour, then the Alliance. Matt McCarten, prominent at the Mana launch, was Alliance president when it split with Jim Anderton over working with Labour.

Brash is a gift to Harawira and a problem for the Maori party. Rodney Hide has run the same “one law for all” line as Brash but has been much less menacing to indigenous rights than Brash the “iwi-Kiwi” man.

Key’s and Bill English’s management and moderation of Hide have enabled Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples to work with National as a joint supporter along with ACT. Lining up with Brash projects a different image to Maori (and the country as a whole).

But the Maori party must keep iwi leaders sweet, in part because that’s where chunks of its money comes from. And iwi leaders are mostly more comfortable with National bosses than with Labour bosses.

That potentially leaves more space for Harawira’s Mana party to pitch to lower-class Maori voters — that is, the great majority.

But it also splits Maori politics, which are minority politics.

Splits in Maori politics date back to the early days of British settlement and ran through the 1860s civil wars. The British forces — military, then political — leveraged old enmities among iwi and hapu.

There are still such splits. In places they have held up settlements under the Treaty of Waitangi tribunal process.

But Harawira and his party exemplify another division among Maori which runs along what his socialist allies would understand as class lines, between those at the “bottom of the heap” and those higher up the status and wealth ladders. (These are not just iwi leaders and the bosses of the big tribal holding companies and trusts. A report on Thursday will show increasing Maori economic weight as business owners and self-employed.)

Labour, of course, has been trying to make the same distinction between its brief for the less-well-off and the Maori party’s National alignment. But Labour is not a Maori party. Mana is, for all its non-Maori support. McCarten is lower-class Maori.

Can Mana take those votes off the Maori party and off Labour?

If so, what does it deliver to those voters? Not much if it doesn’t do what Brash will do at the other end of the spectrum — that is, work with a major party, to change policy here and there.

Isn’t that what the Maori party is doing? There is only so far a purist can get. Protest is safer because principles are unsullied. That poses interesting questions for Harawira and his mates in the coming election and possibly the Parliament thereafter.