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Africa & Aboriginal Tuesday: A Brown Force To Be Reckoned With by Terry Dunleavy

Winston Peters is wrong when he asserts that the next general election will be "a three-horse race". Presumably, he refers to Labour, National and New Zealand First.

Thereís at least a fourth horse which Mr Petersí other three runners ignore at their electoral peril: the Maori Party.

The new party will certainly win one seat (that of its co-leader Tariana Turia), and is likely to win up to five others, leaving only Nanaia Mahuta to survive at the grace and favour of her Waikato Tainui iwi.

There are some significant underpinnings that seem to have escaped public commentary thus far:

* Everything points to a sharp narrowing of the gap between Labour and National.

* Present polls misrepresent the Maori Partyís potential strength in Parliament. It will be based on its number of Maori constituency seats, not its poll percentage.

* A party with five or six MPs may decide whether or not itís a Labour-led or a National-led coalition.

* No one yet seems to have noticed that the entry to Parliament of a Maori Party not beholden to either of the major parties will occur 100 years after the first election as an independent Maori MP of the great Sir Apirana Ngata in 1905.

* Thanks to MMP, that accession by the Maori Party to Parliament, representing Maori in their own right as a party (as distinct from Sir Apirana as a single independent) is probably the first time that Maori as a political group have been able to exert at the highest level the rights they thought they were signing up to in that treaty at Waitangi in 1840.

* Maori are quite capable of turning their electoral backs on Labour as they did in 1996, when NZ First captured all the then five Maori seats.

Such is Maori resentment of their treatment over the foreshore and seabed that it should come as no surprise that the Maori Party now claims to have, at 17,000, the largest membership of any political party. There can be no doubt that whatever its strength in the new Parliament, the prospect of Maori Party representation will be an embarrassment to both Labour and National.

In Labourís case, its present Maori MPs who miss out in their constituencies will (apart from John Tamihere, who declined a list placing) be back in Parliament courtesy of the list. But they will be there beholden to the leadership of the Labour Party, not to Maori voters.

On issues of importance to Maori, they will have only two options, both unpalatable: support the advocacy of Maori Party members on behalf of their Maori voters, or argue against the Maori Party and risk the wrath of Maoridom and subsequent electoral backlash.

One of the oddities of recent political commentary has been the assumption by so many that the Maori Party would seek to coalesce with Labour. This flies in the face of recent history and the reasons why Tariana Turia left Labour and agreed to co-lead the new Maori Party.On more than one occasion she has declared a willingness to talk to Don Brash and National post-election.

Dr Brash seems to have missed the message. He didnít, as some have accused him, rule out the Maori Party as a coalition partner; what he did say was that the Maori MPs would not wish to align with National. Mrs Turiaís repeated assurances seem to suggest otherwise.

What makes the situation embarrassing for National is the relatively recent policy u-turn on the future of the Maori seats. After decades of settled policy that the Maori seats would remain as long as Maori people wanted them, first former leader Bill English, and then Dr Brash, reiterated a policy to abolish the Maori seats on National becoming government.

This creates potential for the Gilbertian situation of numbers-strapped National contemplating negotiating a coalition agreement with a party whose seats it has pledged to abolish.

, National has long welcomed the membership and support of a minority of Maoridom. It was the initiative of Jim Bolger, who led National to its landslide win in 1990, that initiated the long overdue policy to recognise and redress Treaty of Waitangi grievances, a plan that was implemented with such distinction by Sir Douglas Graham. Confusion over the so-called "fiscal envelope" spoiled any chance of a switch of Maori political support to National.

Fast forward to June 2003, when the Court of Appeal found that the Maori Land Court had jurisdiction to investigate the foreshore and seabed to determine whether it is Maori customary land.

In the face of the knee-jerk panic of the Government in deciding to legislate Maori out of their rights of recourse to the courts, National had a chance to make a stand for the rule of law, but baulked when it sensed an opportunity for political gain.

In essence, the formation of the Maori Party was a "plague on both your houses" response to denial by both Labour and National of what most Maori saw as their right to their day in court. That memory will see the Maori Party well represented in the next Parliament.

And that memory should cause National to review its policy u-turn on retention of Maori seats for as long as Maori want to retain them. If National seriously contemplates leading the next government, it needs to mend fences now with the two potential coalition partners most certain to survive the next election - NZ First and the Maori Party.

Terry Dunleavy, a Takapuna writer, is a member of the National Party. This article was published in The New Zealand Herald.

Terry Dunleavy

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

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