At this stage in the electoral cycle, government support parties are usually looking to try to differentiate themselves from the main governing party. They need to do this to show they still hold true to their own values and have a separate identity that is worth voting for. The Maori Party is doing to opposite.
The enduring image from Ratana is Pita Sharples walking on to the marae with John Key. Earlier in the day, Key had said he didn’t think this was going to happen. It seems, then, it was an intentional move by Sharples. By standing literally shoulder to shoulder with National, the Maori Party leadership was sending a message to its disgruntled base: ‘we’re not ashamed, we’re sticking with National’.
The leadership is determined to defend its decision to sell-out for a few crumbs by supporting National but, in doing so, it is kicking sand in the face of the bulk of Maori Party members, who are unhappy with the direction the Party is heading. Publicly cuddling up with Key is only likely to antagonise the base further.
Both the Maori Party leadership and National are running the same line that by being a support party of the government the Maori Party has achieved wins it couldn’t have from opposition. This logic is completely fallacious, of course. Sure, the Nats could have governed without the Maori Party’s votes but all the parties may as well support the government and take what crumbs they get thrown by that reasoning. It would be a Parliament of 122 Peter Dunnes.
By supporting the government, the Maori Party has had to turn its back on its principles – it has voted against workers’ rights, it has voted for tax cuts for the rich, it has voted for higher GST, it has voted to weaken the Emissions Trading Scheme, which it had previously opposed as too weak. And the Maori Party has failed to play the long game.
Opposition isn’t useless. It is a platform to criticise and undermine the agenda of the government so that, eventually, you can win power and implement your own agenda. By supporting the government, the Maori Party has given up the chance to effectively criticise it and, instead, become a fig-leaf for its rightwing agenda.
In asking their supporters to believe that they are better off thanks to the National government, the Maori Party leadership is telling them to disregard the evidence before their eyes. They’re supposed to ignore rising crime rates, rising unemployment, rising rates of diseases of poverty, falling wages, and the fact that only 57% of working-wage Maori are in work. Instead, the leadership would have them believe a fairytale that things are better now and sacrificing a few values to support the National party has all been worthwhile.
The danger here isn’t just of a New Left party breaking away with Hone Harawira’s seat, potentially taking on the Maori Party in the other Maori seats and, in doing so, splitting the vote so they go back to Labour. It isn’t even just the risk of many Maori Party supporters leaving for the Greens. It’s that the leadership is alienating the activists. By unrepentantly supporting National and, indeed, symbolically tying themselves ever closer to a government that is anathema to the Maori Party’s values the leadership is driving away the activists. Without them, the party is sunk.