Maori Party's difficult balancing act

8:34 am on 31 October 2014

If the National Party had got its way three elections ago, then this year the Maori seats would have been abolished.

From left Maori Party MP Marama Fox, Finance Minister Bill English, Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Te Ururoa Flavell and Prime Minister John Key.

The Maori Party signs up for another three years Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

That policy never became a reality because the Maori Party negotiated it out of existence, and since then the Prime Minister has maintained that retaining or abolishing the Maori seats is a decision for Maori.

The Maori Party has been in a formal governing arrangement with National since the 2008 election, a relationship which has been much criticised but which the party again chose to enter into after this year's election.

The party's co-leaders past and present have maintained that they can make more change for Maori by being at the decision-making table, than outside "throwing stones".

And the Maori Party has made gains - it could be argued that it has achieved more than the Government's other support partners combined.

Aside from saving the Maori seats, under persistent negotiating by the Maori Party it was the National-led Government that signed United Nations Declaration on the Rights of of Indigenous Peoples, something that the former Labour-led Government would not do.

Tariana Turia's Whanau Ora may have its detractors and it has had a few bumps, but it is an innovative model for whanau-driven service delivery.

Founding Whanau Ora Minister Tariana Turia, left, with members of its governance group.

Founding Whanau Ora Minister Tariana Turia, left, with members of its governance group. Photo: RNZ

Whanau Ora is the kind of model that the party wants to expand into other areas of economic development as it makes incremental steps towards self-determination for Maori.

The Maori Party says in total it has secured about $3 billion in budget gains over a range of policy areas since 2008.

The flying of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag on the Auckland harbour bridge on Waitangi Day may seem a symbolic win - but as former Labour MP Shane Jones conceded, it means a lot to rangatahi (young people).

Mr Jones - who constantly ridiculed all of the Maori Party's achievements as symbolic finally admitted in his exit interview with Radio New Zealand that they actually were important.

He said rangatahi were looking for the iconic symbolic expression of who they are, where they are in their country and things like seeing the Tino Rangatiratanga flag fly was hugely important to them.

Tino Rangatiratanga flag, a symbol of Maoridom

Tino Rangatiratanga flag, a symbol of Maoridom Photo: PHOTO NZ

But over and above tangible gains, the Maori Party has tempered a National-led Government which had spent much of its time in opposition espousing one law for all type policies.

John Key himself says his is a better Government for its involvement with the Maori Party.

Mr Key's popularity and his continued centrist position on policy for Maori may help slowly change the entrenched racism that is still apparent in many parts of wider New Zealand and that has to be a good thing.

But the difficulty for the Maori Party is that while it has made gains, it is also in a relationship with a party that has raised GST and tightened up welfare, and is now selling off more state houses and reducing workers' rights.

These policies affect many Maori and the Maori Party will continue to be criticised for its relationship with National - even if it opposes some of those policies.

The current and critical issue for the Maori Party, however, is its support base, which continues to dwindle.

If it has achieved so much then why did voters in the Maori seats turn back to Labour - a party in opposition and unable to engender any real change?

Why, if it is the voice for Maori at the Government table, did its party vote slip?

As the party goes into its Annual General Meeting this weekend it will need to ask hard questions of itself and figure out how it can turn its fortunes around.

The Maori Party does vote against Government policy on a regular basis, but it needs to be louder in its opposition so voters hear it.

While this is now even more difficult than before with just two MPs, it needs to talk about itself more and present its message more clearly.

Mr Key is right - the Government is better for being close to the Maori Party, but more broadly Parliament is a better place for having an indigenous political party and it would be a shame if it was to fade away.

Follow Chris Bramwell on Twitter @rnzgallerychris

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