Delicate balance after by-election
If nothing else, Hone Harawira’s narrow victory in the Te Tai Tokerau byelection has justified the holding of the by-election itself. Originally greeted as being a stunt by Harawira – in that his 6000 vote majority was supposed to make him a shoo-in – the battle for the seat eventually went down to the wire.
All involved can take valuable lessons from it, as a pointer to the general election in November.
For Harawira and his fledgling Mana Party, a win – of any sort – put them on the map, and they can reasonably expect an easier ride next time around.
In November, Labour and its formidable election-day machine will be focused elsewhere around the country.
With hindsight, that 6000 plus majority was always misleading in that it was the high-water mark of two forces – the tide going out on nine years of a Labour government, and the surge coming in for the Maori Party, which back in 2008 was seen as the triumphant standard-bearer of tangata whenua hopes and expectations.
That landscape has changed dramatically.
For Labour, the fine effort by its candidate, Kelvin Davis, will be taken as evidence that Labour is on the comeback trail in the Maori electorates, and that some Maori seats could even be winnable in November, especially if the Mana Party competes and splits the vote.
It also signals that the vast majority of Maori now regard Labour as being the lesser evil of the two major parties and regard co-operation with Labour in a more favourable light.
For a Labour opposition that has been on starvation rations all year when it comes to good news, Labour will take such crumbs of comfort gladly.
For the Maori Party, this result would have been worse only if it had succeeded in splitting the vote and handed Harawira a far bigger majority.
Well aware it could not beat Harawira on his home turf, it chose a poor candidate likely to give Davis the best chance of removing the thorn in the Maori Party’s side.
That long-shot gamble failed.
At best, the sense of a tight contest in Te Tai Tokerau may limit Harawira’s momentum in the other Maori seats.
More importantly, the result showed how thoroughly the wind has gone out of the Maori Party sails. It appears to be seen as more a collaborator with the Government than as an effective champion around the Cabinet table.
Between now and November, Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia will have their work cut out trying to turn around that perception. Given this by-election result, can trumpeting their achievements – and closeness – to National be a wise survival tactic, and do they have any other choice?
All of which only serves to underline the volatility and aspirational nature of the Maori vote.
Successively since the mid-1990s, New Zealand First, the Maori Party and now the Mana Party have been the chosen vehicles of Maori expectations.
Harawira will want to make something more durable out of his current connection with Maori voters.
His party list – and the balance it strikes between the Maori and pakeha candidates on it – will be crucial to his chances of displacing the Maori Party as the genuine representative of his people.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.