Power play: Māori Party strategy already undermined by Tamihere

2:32 pm on 9 March 2020

In just one day, the Māori Party has unravelled 18 months of work rebuilding and repositioning itself ahead of the September election.

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John Tamihere during his run for Auckland Mayor. Photo: RNZ / Rowan Quinn

John Tamihere this weekend confirmed one of the world's worst-kept-political-secrets, announcing he will try win Tāmaki Makaurau for the Māori Party

The former Labour MP and Auckland mayoralty candidate took no time at all to make his mark - and one starkly at odds with the party's messaging to date.

Having faced complete annihilation at the last election, Māori Party President Che Wilson has been striving to remake the party and its kaupapa.

Speaking at Waitangi in February, he told RNZ the party had a clear preference for working with Labour in any future government.

"If we ever do talk to National it will have to be a big deal for us to move that way again,'' Wilson said.

"The perception and reputation by aligning with National affected us, it kicked us out."

And yet, in almost his first comments after announcing, Tamihere entirely dismissed that approach, suggesting the party could happily work with National.

Tamihere last year ran a right-leaning mayoralty campaign to differentiate himself from Labour's favourite Phil Goff and it is clear he is positioning the party as an alternative to New Zealand First.

He told RNZ the first step is connecting with and securing votes from Māori to put it in a position where it can go with either the National/ACT bloc or Labour/Greens.

Given his profile and former Parliamentary experience, Tamihere is now an obvious pick for co-leader, but that poses a familiar dilemma for the party.

He is likely to share the leadership with a more left-leaning Te Tai Hauauru candidate Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, a partnership which has echoes of the lead-up to 2017.

It was the mixed messaging and confusion from former co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox that began the downfall of the party almost three years ago.

Flavell had served as a minister under the then-National government and was happy to keep that option on the table, but Fox saw the rising star of Jacinda Ardern in the months leading up to election day and hitched herself to Labour.

Māori were left confused as to what the party truly represented.

Tamihere is no stranger to the Tāmaki Makarau seat - he lost it in 2005 after refusing to cross the floor with Dame Tariana Turia on the seabed and foreshore issue under Helen Clark's government.

That action by Dame Tariana led to the birth of the Māori Party and ended Tamihere's time in the seat.

He told RNZ he is making a comeback because Māori need a voice and the current Labour MPs holding the Maori seats get told to be quiet and sit down.

The two issues Tamihere will play on most at the election is the handling of Whānau Ora funding - the minister Peeni Henare is the incumbent MP for Tāmaki Makarau - and the land dispute at Ihumātao.

It's true that neither Henare nor Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, who is also contesting the electorate, have covered themselves in glory with the Ihumātao debate.

Instead of bringing solutions and unity to the table, Davidson joined the protesters' frontline in a direct snub to the Government that her party is a supply and confidence partner to.

And while Henare was involved in talks in the beginning between the affected parties, he's either left the table or been shut out. When asked for an update last week, he responded: "I'm not sure, I literally haven't heard anything''.

Ihumātao has the potential to become a real catalyst for change and it's the Māori Party who would reap the benefits if it does.

But Labour also has an opportunity to find a lasting solution and if it can pull that off, and soon, it will neutralise one of the Māori Party's weapons.

Tamihere has teased the fight for Tāmaki Makaurau as being set to be a "doozy''.

Even more of a doozy will be the party's leadership trying to explain to potential voters that it's learnt any lessons at all.

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