What if Labour had left the foreshore undisturbed?

There has been much talk since Parekura Horomia died about the foreshore and seabed turmoil and his decision to stick with Labour then. But what if Labour had not passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act to override the Appeal Court decision?

Would Maori have been pleased or angry now?

There was abundant Maori anger at the time: a hikoi and a new anti-Labour Maori party. From that perspective Labour would have been much better to have gone along with Dame Sian Elias and her problematic colleagues.

Tariana Turia would not have stomped off in high dudgeon to form her anti-Labour party. Labour might well have kept all the Maori seats and a swathe of Labour-leaning voters in those seats would not have been transferred by proxy into National’s camp in 2008.

But in 2003 National under Bill English was running rough-stuff billboards saying Labour was going to stop dinkum Kiwis’ “barbies on the beach”. English’s successor, Don Brash, built on this in his Orewa speech in January 2004 promising to end “special treatment” of Maori (as if they were all privileged). National zoomed up in opinion polls. It is a fair bet Brash would have won the 2005 election instead of narrowly losing it. He would have had ACT in tow.

Both parties had — still have — a policy of abolishing the Maori seats. It is a fair bet a Brash government would have done that in the 2005-08 term.

That would have upset Maori concerned about tino rangatiratanga and custom and indigenous rights more than the foreshore-seabed law. And it would have rendered them powerless in Parliament unless they could get up a 5 per cent party and hold a Maori-specific corner of Parliament that way.

In fact that is the longer-term logic of MMP for Maori: a Maori grouping which takes the Maori seats, or most of them, and builds on that platform a secure 5 per cent-plus party similar to the secure 5 per cent-plus Greens.

New Zealand First’s post-1996 “tight five”, who in the crunch were not tight, were not that grouping. Nor is the Maori party that grouping — short of members, money and momentum and arguing who should be leader(s), with Hone Harawira apostate up north. Did the Maori party get much more from National in the revised foreshore law, aside possibly from one clause, than Horomia’s Ngati Porou showed it could get in its deal with Labour under Labour’s law?

A difference between the Greens and the Maori party is that the Greens have always known what they were for, whereas the Maori party (like long-gone New Labour) started off as an “against” party and only later filled in the “for”.

Since 2008 it has backed a government that has done many things not directly in the interests of lower socioeconomic voters and some directly against them. A higher proportion of Maori voters are lower-socioeconomic than general voters. So logically voters in Maori seats back Labour on the party vote: 50 per cent in 2008 and 41 per cent in 2011, far above Labour’s general party vote.

The Maori party does reflect those interests. It says it voted against the Key government more often than Labour in 2008-11. Its public statements this term read like those of an opposition, not a government, party.

Now add in Horomia’s extensive organised network all the way down to Wainuomata and the effect of the transfer of his mana to the new candidate — assuming Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungungu choose well. Labour should hold the seat. If it doesn’t, that will send a shock wave that shakes Labour to its core.

But beyond the by-election there are two bigger questions for Labour.

One is whether it can win the eighth Maori seat likely as a result of the post-census Maori option. If it doesn’t that will raise big questions about its representation of Maori that for a half-century was locked up until Tau Henare won Northern Maori for New Zealand First in 1993.

Related to that is the quality of Maori candidates and MPs. It is a long time since one could claim a top-six position in a Labour cabinet on merit. Shane Jones has the ability but has yet to demonstrate gravitas and grit. Kelvin Davis showed promise as a new MP in 2008-11 but promise is not proof. Nanaia Mahuta has rank and intelligence but has not lived up to either. Rino Tirikatene has the name but not — yet — the political mana that goes with it.

Meantime National’s Chris Finlayson is motoring through historic Treaty of Waitangi settlements, with the help of Labour ex-MPs as negotiators. National ministers are turning their attention to facilitating more flexible management and exploitation by iwi and other Maori of growing commercial assets.

That points to a different world from the one in which a paternalistic and often condescending Labour held the Maori vote. Labour has to earn increasingly varied and evolving Maori votes in a complex society and economy.

The by-election, well-used, could be a start for Labour. The alternative is more of the present muddle. At least the foreshore-seabed stoush was clear and defining.