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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Critical Decisions Ahead for Hone Harawira


Commentary- John Minto

The poll results from Maori Televisions’ Native Affairs programme last night showing a third of Maori voters would consider voting for a Hone Harawira-led political party should not be a surprise to anyone.

Neither should it be surprising that on key issues Hone Harawira is driving (jobs, the rise in GST, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the sale of state-owned enterprises), a large majority of Maori voters are in tune with what he is saying.

It’s ironic that the foreshore and seabed is no longer such a dominant Maori concern. It was the raison-d’ĂȘtre of the Maori Party which was formed following the 15,000 strong hikoi to parliament in 2004, led of course by Hone Harawira, but is now being left behind by the bread and butter issues of everyday struggle.

In reality the foreshore and seabed was a lightning rod for other issues, most notably huge disaffection with government policies which saw working New Zealanders and their families fall further behind in the first five years of the last Labour government.

What the poll showed starkly is that Hone Harawira is much more closely in tune with Maori voters and the aspirations of Maori families than his former Maori Party colleagues. While Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples went willingly with National and have provided political cover for John Key on such things as a raft of anti-worker legislation, tax policy which has shifted the burden further onto the low-paid and another round of beneficiary bashing, Harawira has presented a fresh approach in line with Maori aspirations.

It’s easy to see that in any scenario the Maori Party itself will struggle in the November election. It will find itself squeezed between Labour’s determination to destroy it (putting Shane Jones head to head with Pita Sharples in Tamaki is a declaration of war) and a Hone Harawira led party which headlines the bread and butter issues of most concern to Maori.

Labour will run a negative campaign saying a vote for the Maori Party is a vote for National and this will strike a chord with voters who cringe seeing Sharples and Turia riding shotgun for John Key while he attacks low-paid workers and beneficiaries. Unsurprisingly the Native Affairs poll shows a big majority of Maori voters continue to prefer a Maori Party coalition with Labour rather than National.

The problem for Labour regaining the Maori vote is it doesn’t have a clear message on most of the key issues. In its early days National was described as Labour-lite but in November it will be Labour campaigning as National-lite. Hone Harawira will have a clearer field to drive hard on issues of greatest concern to Maori voters.

The limiting factor for Harawira is his stated preference for his new party to be Maori-led and Maori focused. That immediately limits its appeal to a broad section of working New Zealanders who would readily support the policies he advocates. In remaining Maori focused Harawira will be able to successfully tap into the third of Maori voters identified as prepared to support a party he leads but it will cut the party off from struggling New Zealand families across the board. It’s too big a jump to expect a working class pakeha family to support a Maori focused party even if it has great working class policies.

If Harawira sticks with this view he will be building a left-wing Maori Party – one which won’t resonate and which risks being marginalized with at most just two or three seats. However if he embraces a wider-view and articulates for working New Zealanders across the board he could garner much broader impact.

Also limiting his appeal is his already strong branding as a Maori activist on Maori issues. Transitioning to broader public support will depend on the look of the party list he is able to muster. Bringing on people with strong backgrounds in supporting workers’ struggles will be critical. Without this it will be all but impossible to persuade a significant section of working New Zealanders to give him their vote.

Meanwhile Labour’s reaction is as predictable as ever. Party leader Phil Goff has ruled out working with Hone Harawira post election. As I’ve said before, if push comes to shove Labour would prefer a grand coalition with National than linking up with a left-wing ally. Even the Green Party was too much for them – Labour continues to prefer the likes of Winston Peters. National-lite indeed.

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