Maori Party Cinderella-ises itself

by Fiona Rae / 18 February, 2012
The party's threat to leave the coalition with National was a fiasco, and leaves it vulnerable, says Jane Clifton.

It’s hard to take someone seriously when he or she threatens World War III and then goes into hiding. The Maori Party’s no-show on Parliament’s first sitting day this week sapped most of the menace from its vow to pull out of coalition with National. This wasn’t even crying wolf. More like whispering pomeranian. The whole furore over asset sales and the Treaty is one giant shadow-boxing bout, in any case. The Maori Party threatened to resign unless an unenforceable Treaty clause was nevertheless enforced, meaningless though that would be – and not that anyone really knows what the clause means when it is able to be enforced.

This was in relation to asset sales to as yet unknown parties, which may not after all take place – and all because former colleague Hone Harawira goaded the party into it by calling its MPs toadies and sell-outs, which he has done a thousand times before without such a gratifying reaction. The crowning stupidity of the party’s position is that if it did pull the pin on its coalition deal with National, it would become even less electorally viable than it already is.

To cap off this inglorious start to the new parliamentary term, another old foe, Winston Peters, came to Wellington armed with a beaut little scandal about the Maori Party’s flagship policy, Whanau Ora, claiming the welfare programme had funded a wealthy businessman’s family reunions. Without the programme’s minister, Tariana Turia, on hand to defend/explain/refute the allegation, the story ran, leaving Winston more puffed up than an orpington rooster at dawn.

The upshot of this is that the Maori Party, which has achieved for Maori more than Winston or Hone combined, utterly lost control of the agenda – if it ever had it – and let the public debate rage along on false claims.

During the annual histrionics of Waitangi Day, Hone spooked the party into making the pull-out threat when he claimed it was doing nothing to stop the Government stripping the Treaty of Waitangi provisions from the State Sector Act. This was, of course, bilge. Pause a moment to bang one’s head on a handy hard surface – the Government is doing nothing of the kind. It is taking the four electricity companies planned for partial public float out of the Act because they can’t be sold while still in it. The Treaty clause isn’t going anywhere.

The clause will bind the Government with respect to its proposed 51% ownership of the power companies. But it cannot be imposed on future private buyers. Even if it could, how might it be policed? “Dear Mr and Mrs Brown of Havelock North, It has come to our attention that, following your purchase of 300 shares in Meridian, you have not behaved in a manner consistent with having regard to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, concomitant with Section 9. What do you intend to do about this? Yours sincerely, The Crown.” How to approach an overseas hedge fund about this doesn’t even bear thinking about.

As if it needed underlining, this fiasco shows how perilous the Maori Party’s position is, with not just Hone and his Mana Party sapping its vote on its left flank, but with Winston and his not inconsiderable Maori pulling power on its right. These two gents can say whatever they fancy about how things should be done for, by, to and – in Winston’s case – against Maoridom, because there’s no immediate danger of their having to implement any actual policies. In Hone’s case, this impotence is permanent, as neither National nor Labour will work with him. As for Winston, he implemented few major policies in all his years in the Beehive that can be credited with elevating the economic status of Maori.

Compared with the Maori Party, which at least has a Maori-centric welfare system up and running, and resolved the foreshore and seabed dispute, Hone and Winston could even be seen as mere gobby dilettantes. But they already have the party figuratively cowering in the corner.

The Nats, meanwhile, are treating the party’s threat with the overt tact and patience normally reserved for humouring underslept toddlers – “There, there, don’t be a crosspatch.” Some sort of Band-Aid formulation of words including “consultation”, along with special iwi investment opportunities in the floats, will eventually bundle the row into a dark cupboard. And bluntly, the party was never going to act on its pull-out threat.

Because here is the basic arithmetical challenge: would the Maori Party’s vote rise enough as a result of its quitting the coalition to safeguard its future and increase its demand-making power over a future government? Not in this universe. More likely, the party’s retreat from centre-stage would make it all but irrelevant, collapsing what remains of its vote.

Labour’s Shane Jones is already showing signs of blowing the cobwebs off his party’s relationship with Maori, and for voters who just want to see a bit of taiaha put about, you can’t go past Hone and Winston. The Maori Party once had the primary warrior brand, but those days are gone. Its sole political asset is the ability to wring trophies for Maoridom out of the National Government.

What’s urgently needed is some stroppy salesmanship from the party. But it’s an open secret that both Tariana and co-leader Pita Sharples long to retire. They’re tuckered out with politics. This didn’t prevent an unseemly row late last year when the other MP, Te Ururoa Flavell, tried not unreasonably to get the co-leadership off Sharples, but that’s another story. The fact is, Flavell, though widely respected, is no match for Hone or Winston in the salesmanship stakes, either.

So the party seems doomed to be a sort of Cinderella for whom the pumpkin steadfastly remains a vegetable; soldiering on doing good works, and being punished for it by electoral oblivion.

National, meanwhile, must secretly wonder whether these damned floats are worth all the fuss. It hasn’t the luxury of wondering too hard, as the money the floats are supposed to bring in is essential to its policies for getting New Zealand out of perilous debt and deficit. But beside this little interlude of Waitangi hysteria, there is the new round of court action pending over other Treaty issues, ­including water rights. There are also new questions about how much ­practical control the Government can wield over the assets once they’ve been part-privatised. Shareholder power is a much weaker commodity than ownership power.

And that’s not even taking into account the overarching political bogie: that the public hates asset sales, and that’s what it continues to believe these deals to be. Despite the Government’s vigorous efforts, the “mixed-ownership model” concept has not caught on. Perhaps that’s the Government’s biggest problem here: acronym failure. Past administrations have had us mindlessly parroting an alphabet soup of silly acronyms: hospitals became CHEs, doctors became PHOs, exams became NCEAs, diplomats became MFAT. Yet this Government couldn’t get us to adopt the cosy MOM with her reassuring guarantee that only 49% of the family silver would have to leave home.

But even if most voters reject the concept, we’d better hope like hell the markets will buy it. However reviled and problematic, these sales are vital. It’s hard to contemplate the consequences of having to call them off for lack of investor support, without getting unpleasant spinal chills. Ratings downgrades, massive further job cuts, a slide toward the PIGs schedule … There are times when, like it or not, one needs one’s MOM.
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