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Is the Maori Party past its use-by date?

Monday 1 Jul 2013 6:04 a.m.

Pita Sharples

Pita Sharples

By Peter Wilson

Is the Maori Party past its use-by date? Its dismal result in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election raises questions about its future and its leadership.

No one expected Labour to lose the seat but the Maori Party should have come in second.

It ran third behind Hone Harawira's Mana Party, with candidate Na Raihania gaining 2104 of the 10,519 cast on the day.

Mana's Te Hamua Nikora beat him with 2607 votes, reversing the result in the 2011 general election.

The Maori Party has suffered from internal squabbles for more than a year and its co-leaders, Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, are barely visible in parliament.

Its third MP, Te Ururoa Flavell, has been doing most of the work in the debating chamber and he wants to be the leader.

He claims majority support from party members, particularly the younger ones, but that hasn't been put to the test because the party's constitution has no rules to deal with a leadership challenge.

It's also in a bind because its constitution says there has to be male and female co-leaders - Turia is stepping down at the next election but that doesn't open a door for Flavell.

And Sharples, after toying with the idea of retiring along with Turia, decided he's in for the long haul.

After Saturday's debacle it could be a short haul.

Mana has taken over as the voice of disadvantaged Maori. While Turia has been engrossed with her Whanau Ora welfare delivery scheme and Sharples has taken a back seat in Parliament, Harawira has made the running with his fiery condemnation of government policies and grandiose ideas for getting Maori into homes and jobs.

He is free to criticise the Government while Turia and Sharples are constrained by the support agreement they signed after the last election.

Both are ministers in a National-led government and that link has almost certainly cost the party support.

While their assertions that it's better to be on the inside achieving results than on the outside achieving nothing are valid, that isn't something voters easily accept.

Since the first MMP election in 1996, minor parties have paid the price for making deals with National or Labour.

Now it's the Maori Party's turn, and retaining the three seats it holds will be a huge task in 2014.

Turia has a firm grip on Te Tai Hauauru but she won't be there to defend it.

Sharples retained Tamaki Makaurau in 2011 with a majority of 936 over Labour's Shane Jones.

Flavell held Waiariki with a 1883 majority after a hard fight with Mana's Annette Sykes.

The Maori Party has never been anywhere near the 5 percent of the party vote it needs to get MPs into Parliament without winning an electorate seat, it depends entirely on the candidate vote.

Saturday's result should spur the party's executive into action. There's a view within the membership that the co-leader requirement should be scrapped, and that Flavell should take over.

It's difficult to assess how strong that feeling is but it should be put to the test, because the status quo clearly isn't working.

National will watch closely. A failing Maori Party robs it of potential support in 2014 and a popular Mana Party is the last thing it needs.

NZN

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