The Mana Party’s weekend AGM showed the fledging new movement to be evolving in important ways. It still has some real ideological problems – or perhaps strengths, depending on your point of view – because it’s not clear if it wants to be a leftwing or a Maori-oriented party, and it’s going to try and be both. But the party is also becoming a bit more dynamic as moves beyond being a one-man band. For example it is expanding its leadership base with the election of very strong joint vice presidents, John Minto and Annette Sykes, and the addition of potential candidates Sue Bradford and Willie Jackson. The involvement of Jackson, in particular, would be significant – if he chooses to run in the Auckland Maori seat of Tamaki Makaurau, the three-way race between him, Pita Sharples and Shane Jones would be one of the most intriguing of the general election. As well as this, Mana is now set to go head-to-head with the Maori Party in a battle to the death in all the Maori electorates. I spoke about this today on TV3’s Firstline programme (read here; watch here). The blog post elaborates on some of the points I made. [Read more below]
The Mana Party has until now been seen as a one-man band. The leader Hone Harawira has very much embodied the new party, which is both a strength and a weakness. Harawira certainly is a powerful figure, but for Mana to be based on just one MP – and a maverick one – can be a problem for a minor party, especially as the party isn’t entirely taken seriously as being anything more than a vanity vehicle for the personal ambitions of that leader.
Now, however, there’s some other strong individuals that are officially involved at the leadership level. The new joint vice-presidents, John Minto and Annette Sykes, are both heavyweight politicos with a long and solid experience in activist politics. They will be a useful counter to Harawira’s idiosyncrasies. Where, for example, Harawira is inclined to shoot off his mouth and react without really thinking, someone like John Minto is a much more considered, calm and cautious operator. Both Minto and Sykes are incredibly astute and smart people, and they’ll also be strong enough to ensure that the Mana Party isn’t just controlled by one person (Hone Harawira) – they’re not the sort of people to be easily pushed aside by a dominating personality. And this is a healthy thing in a political party.
And of course, Matt McCarten, has finally been confirmed as party president, which is also very significant. McCarten is really the brains and master strategist behind the party.
Alongside the new vice-presidents, it’s also been confirmed that Sue Bradford will also be an election candidate for Mana, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Willie Jackson will too. They’re both former MPs that will lend the party considerable parliamentary and extra-parliamentary experience.
Bradford – the long-time beneficiaries rights advocate – is going to be the candidate up against Paula Bennett in Waitakere. This will be controversially on the political left, because the Labour Party are putting a great deal of effort in the campaign by Carmel Sepuloni to win that seat back of the Minister for Social Development. So there will be some fears that Bradford will split the vote and therefore give Paula Bennett an easy victory. However, it seems that Bradford will actually only be campaigning for the ‘party vote’ for Mana in the seat.
The Tamaki Makaurau seat is likely to be one of the most closely watched election contests this year – especially if Willie Jackson decides to contest it. Already the incumbent and Maori Party co-leader, Pita Sharples, is looking very vulnerable to losing it to Labour list MP Shane Jones, and now Willie Jackson is in the final stages of deciding whether to contest it for the Mana Party. If he does, it’d be an intriguing three-way race. Jackson has a very strong profile within Maoridom, and especially in South Auckland.
This all means that Mana has some very high profile and very polarising candidates that will represent the party in public. Minto, Sykes, Jackons and Bradford are heavyweight political activists that will be both loved and loathed throughout the country. And, in particular, many people really do loathe them. They’re all seen as incredibly radical and outside the mainstream. But this will work well for the Mana Party – which isn’t a mainstream and major party, but really just a niche and minor party. The party needs to have some big names like this that will attract media and public attention and help get the Mana’s message out. As Matt McCarten is inclined to say, when 90% of the public don’t like you, that means that 10% do – and it’s that 10% that Mana are focused on.
So it’s good to see that Mana isn’t playing the usual game of trying to select very ‘acceptable’ candidates that won’t offend. Too often the parliamentary parties try to ‘hard to please’ and end up with candidates that are so inoffensive they’re boring and bland.
A Maori party or a leftwing party?
There’s still a very strong ideological ambiguity about the Mana Party. It seems that it hasn’t made up its mind about whether it wants to be a niche Maori party or a leftwing one. Most of the public associate it as being a Maori party because it’s personified by the Maori nationalist radical Hone Harawira. But increasingly, with the involvement of a lot of leftwing radicals – especially John Minto, Matt McCarten and Sue Bradford – it really is looking more like a radical leftwing party. Jackson, however, despite his prior involvement as an Alliance MP, is really more of a maverick Maori nationalist and businessperson these days.
So once again this past weekend, we’ve seen Hone Harawira sounding more and more leftwing rather than like a Maori nationalist. His statements were all about the party standing for all the poor, and for the working class. And many of the policies he talked about were fairly solid leftwing ones.
One perspective on this is simply to look at the arithmetics of it all. There are only about 240,000 people on the Maori roll, whereas there’s another 2.5 million Pakeha on the general roll. So to find electoral success, the party needs to wider its catchment. They can’t do it on the basis of winning Maori votes alone.
The party seems to be focused on winning 3-4% of the party vote, and therefore yielding it about five MPs. If they can achieve that, then Mana will be a huge success and something quite significant in Parliament. Meanwhile, it’s more than just possible that it’s arch rival, the Maori Party will be reduced to a single seat in Parliament. Therefore by the end of the day on November 26 the Mana Party might well be seen as ‘the real Maori Party’.