The Maori Party faces an uphill battle. Multiple defections from the northern electorate organization has handed a significant human infrastructure to Mana Party leader Hone Harawira.
The Maori Party expected “hundreds” to attend a first byelection hui at Te Tii marae last month – just 50 turned up, including a dozen Maori Party MPs and officials from outside the electorate and others attending in opposition. Over 500 attended the Mana Party launch the previous week.
A February Horizon poll showed just 11% Maori support over the Takutai Moana Act – with 41% opposed. A previous Te Karere Digipoll had 45% of Maori Party voters and 50% of all Maori concerned about the relationship with National. There is a widespread perception that the ejection of Harawira was to stem internal criticism of the National’s policies and the foreshore repeal
A February New Zealand Herald poll showed 80% of northern Maori thought the party treated Harawira unfairly, for instance demanding he attend a disciplinary meeting on the first day of Ngapuhi treaty claims hearing, after a postponement that included allowing co-leader Pita Sharples to perform at the national kapa haka competition.
Horizon Research polls in May showed the Mana Party creeping ahead nationally 2.3% to 2.1% with 40% of Maori Party voters saying they are considering switching waka.
The party may argue a later Colmar Brunton poll, where it pipped Mana 1.4% to 0.9%, shows the honeymoon period for Mana has ended.
More challenging is convincing voters the gains they have made working with National balance off the losses on the minimum wage issue, rise in GST, and Maori unemployment (now 40% higher than in late 2009) which continues to rise while the rate for Pakeha has dropped.
The Maori Party cab can highlight its success in securing $600 million in the Maori budget vote over the last three years, significantly more than Labour’s last term. And although, much of it is redirected rather than new money many of the new directions, such as flagship Whanau Ora, are worthy.
There is also value in emphasising the importance of removing the future of the Maori seats from this year’s MMP referendum without which the seats could go in 2014.
The party will make much of National and Labour refusing to work with Harawira. In response, Harawira could point out the success of standalone Jim Anderton, although the latter is clearly better behaved.
In what looks like a concession to the remnant party machine in Whangarei and or an attempt to secure a more compliant candidate than Harawira, the selection of Solomon Tipene over much higher profile Waihoroi Shortland and Mere Mangu came as a surprise. Longtime civil servant, Tipene has brought dignity to the campaign above the pernicious insults that plague the Harawira saga. The Harawira whanau outburst at Te Tii was unhelpful. So too are recent comments from co-president Ken Mair and co-leader Tariana Turia that Harawira has “joined the unions,” makes “noise,” and leads a non-Maori party. These things play to the Pakeha mainstream media but are unlikely to gain traction with Maori. Squarely voters accept Mana stands for the poor, a large proportion of whom are Maori.
Tipene appears uncomfortable on the national stage, visibly stumbling at his first press conference, declining some subsequent interviews and replying to questions from Pakeha journalists in te reo. He has profile amongst Ngati Hine and Whangarei, which comprises about 20% of the electorate, but not in the 40% far north Harawira stronghold or 40% Waitakere region.
An informal Northern Advocate byelection poll places the Maori Party a very distant third behind Harawira and Labour’s Kelvin Davis. Indeed the party may accept sacrificing the north to Labour if that is what it takes to sink Harawira and the Mana Party in advance of the general election. As with all things Maori, the battle for mana and mandate continues.