This is a fight to the political death. Hone Harawira has been battling for control of the Maori Party, but now his caucus colleagues are fighting back. Today saw their declaration of war against Harawira vis the seeking of legal advice about how to expel him and through Te Ururoa Flavell’s formal complaint within the party organisation. This manuover is not so much about Harawira’s outspoken Sunday Star Times column – which is really just a pretext for the ambush on the rebel MP – but is more about a fight over the political direction of a pan-Maori party that has a very contradictory voter support base. This blog post attempts to explain what is happening in the Maori Party, and why. [Read more below]
The unresolved contradictions within the Maori Party
In order to understand the current major schism within the Maori Party, you need to understand the major contradictions within the party and within Maoridom as a whole. The Maori Party is a pan-Maori party, and is trying to represent vastly different Maori interests. It has always had a very contradictory voter support base. After all, not all Maori think alike, have the same political views, or the same economic interests. Most importantly, the party has tried to represent the interest of poor Maori and the growing middle income Maori. (But there are other tensions as well).
The party clearly has a left and right. The right of the party is obviously led by the co-leadership of Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. These people are more conservative, more aligned with traditional iwi structures, with aspiration Maori, and quite happy to be in coalition with National.
The left of the party is obviously led by Harawira, who comes from a more anti-establishment and radical background. Harawira has come to champion the poorer support base of the Maori Party, especially urban working class Maori, who have less to do with traditional iwi and are less enamoured with the National-led Government.
This left-right/poor-rich division has been a very strong contradiction within the party, and an incongruity that has never been resolved or properly tested. Going into coalition with the National Party has been a small test of that contradiction between poor and rich Maori but it was tempered by the fact that the Maori Party joined a coalition that was already been formed and the coalition’s existence was not reliant on the Maori Party’s support, and thus the party wasn’t the king maker. But if not resolved soon, then after the next election, if the Maori Party is in a kingmaker position, then there will be huge pressures on that contradiction.
Harawira himself has internal contradictions – mostly the tension between his Maori nationalist politics and his more leftish/working class orientation. At times he seems to shift between these quite different ideological principles, and lately his more leftish side has been showing. (And if he was to start a new Left Party with the likes of McCarten and Bradford, he’d essentially need to ditch or downplay his radical Maori nationalism and take up a more leftwing political orientation).
Harawira’s mission: control and radicalise the Maori Party
Harawira has been positioning himself to take over the party and resolve the contradiction between rich and poor Maori Party voters by forcing the party to take a side. He wants them to choose to be a left or right party (and he obviously wants them to be a left party). The takeover of the party has become more urgent to Harawira as he has perceived the party to become embedded in National’s embrace. So far he has put himself in a strong position to make the takeover happen. Within the wider party organisation and rank-and-file party membership Harawira is extremely popular. And his grip on his own Te Tai Tokerau electorate is incredibly firm – he has built up a personal vote that allows him the independence to take on the Maori Party leadership. Because even if he is expelled, he would hold onto his seat against any Maori Party or Labour Party candidate. And with Turia and Sharples heading towards the end of their time in politics, this makes Harawira the key person in the Maori Party – no one else has anything like his support in Maori politics.
Of course, if he doesn’t win the struggle, he will certainly leave the Maori Party, either to be an independent Maori MP for his electorate, or to help build a new Left Party with McCarten and Bradford. This week’s confrontation makes it look like he’s losing the internal battle and will eventually depart.
The fight against Harawira
The leadership and conservatives within the Maori Party are fighting back against Harawira’s attempted takeover, and this week’s ambush on him was effectively a pre-emptive strike to prevent him getting stronger.
Of course it seems extraordinary for the Maori Party caucus to be consciously creating such a significant schism at the start of an election year. On the face of it, surely they would be better to try to informally resolve the issue instead of provocatively declaring war on their outspoken MP? However, the leadership is well aware that the schism and contradictions within the party can no longer be painted over, and that it’s now a “fight to the death”. Either Harawira wins or he loses, and there can be no compromise.
The timing and motivations for the ambush on Harawira
The reason that the Maori Party is taking this extraordinary step is to pre-empt Harawira becoming stronger in his internal struggle for control of the party. Although he currently has significant support within the party memership, Harawira is obviously only one lone voice and vote within the five-person caucus. But Turia and Sharples realise that this could be about to change, depending on what happens in the election this year.
The Maori Party currently holds five of the seven Maori seats, but it is quite conceivable that they could pick up the other two off Labour in 2011, especially if the two Labour Party incumbents – Parakura Horomia and Nanaia Mahuta – decide not to stand again in Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Hauraki-Waikato. An announcement on their futures is expected from them shortly. If they stand down, then this would greatly improve the Maori Party’s chances of winning those seats, and then bringing in one or two new MPs who are close to Harawira. Immediately the caucus configuration would be very, very different, and Harawira’s chances of pushing the party in his desired, radical, direction would be very strong. [NB: this paragraph has been reworked to correct an error]
And, so that’s why Harawira’s caucus colleagues struck now. They need to sort out “the Harawira problem” now, prior to candidate selections, which are soon to begin.
The motivations of Flavell and Katene
The formal complaint from Te Ururoa Flavell is a surprising declaration of war against Harawira. Previously Flavell has kept relatively distant from the leadership-Harawira feud, and he’s remained on good terms with both factions. So why has Flavell suddenly stopped wavering and jumped into the battle against Harawira? It seems to be largely a question of self-interest over the leadership succession question. Flavell is the current leadership’s favourite to succeed from Sharples when he soon retires, and Flavell definitely wants that position. And until recently Harawira has always made the ‘correct’ and diplomatic noises about agreeing that Flavell should be the next co-leader. But now with the struggle over the Maori Party’s future direction being stepped up, Flavell and others see that Harawira intends to take control of the party.
Rahui Katene has also joined in the fight against Harawira, after previously also wavering. No doubt she has been pressured by the co-leadership, but her ‘stab in the back’ (as Harawira will see it) relates more to the pressure she is under over the Marine and Coastal Area bill. The party itself is having to deal with incredibly strong pressure applied to them from many parts of Maoridom over their support for the bill – and they see Harawira as responsible for whipping up that intensity. Katene is particular vulnerable, and there is a real chance that she could lose her Te Tai Tonga electorate to Labour due to her support for the bill. She’s been faced with the choice of either ditching her support and joining in with Harawira or following the lead of her more collegial colleagues and leaders.
Pressure from the National Party to expel Harawira
While the Maori Party caucus has its own very good reasons for marginalising and ultimately expelling Harawira, the MPs are also under very strong pressure from their coalition partner, National. The Prime Minister and other leading party figures have been asserting very definite directives to Sharples and Turia to ditch Harawira. Much of National’s goodwill (and thus policy concessions) to the Maori Party has been placed on the table as being conditional on Harawira’s departure.
National’s main motivations for this can be categorised in terms of the short-term and the long-term interests of the National Party. In the short-term, National fears that Harawira is destabilising its coalition partner and its support for the Marine and Coastal Area bill. This ‘foreshore and seabed’ issue is set to be the biggest political issue of 2011, and National has a lot riding on being able to sort it out. If the Government fails to get the foreshore and seabed replacement legislation wrapped up and the issue neutered in the early part of the year, then it will definitely drag right into the election campaign. This is seen as National’s worst case scenario, and Harawira is seen as being the culprit. If he is no longer in the Maori Party (and thus part of the broader government) then he will be seen as less relevant and damaging.
The longer-term issue for National is their desire to foster and build up an ongoing coalition relationship with the Maori Party. Mostly the two parties have worked very well in government, leading to the very real possibility of the development of an enduring and natural alignment between the two whereby National can usually expect to have the centrist Maori Party supporting a National-led government. The fly in the ointment is Harawira who quite clearly states that he opposes any such future and is determined to pull his party back to the left and into a very clear anti-National Party position. If that happens, this could keep National out of government following most elections.
Who will win?
The battle for the future of the Maori Party is clearly in the balance. Harawira doesn’t appear to have anticipated such a strong strike against him this week. But although it appears that he is heavily out-numbered, he has the confidence of knowing that he has some very strong allies in the party organisation, as well as majority support in the Maori Party ‘flaxroots’.
Future blog posts will cover this ‘battle to the political death’ as it plays out.