Hone Harawira and the partnership pickle

Hone Harawira's view that he doesn't want his children going out with pakeha is already last week's water cooler debate. But his words will come to haunt both him and the Maori Party as they cut to the heart of Maori progress

Hone Harawira's loose, lazy confession that he wouldn't want one of his children coming home with a Pakeha partner is fading from public debate, but my guess is that it's the most damaging thing he's yet done to the Maori party and its developing political muscle.

Regarding the day trip while in Europe on official business, the swearing and more, Harawira can argue that Pakeha MPs have behaved just as badly in recent times. His actions have mostly offended people inclined to be offended by him anyway.

In a perverse way, they simply made his maverick brand stronger, giving him, if anything, more political leeway. 'Oh, that's just Hone,' some will say.

Harawira is no stranger to political games, although not in the typical beltway sense. Not for him dissembling or procedural tricks; rather he strategically shocks to move the centre in his direction and he plays the rebel to great effect.

It works, in as much as it does, because it's authentic and appeals to our sense of fair play. He's not a creature of focus groups. He's a challenge to conformity and no fool. I'd argue he is a valuable member of parliament because he's a valve and a good reminder that New Zealand is better when there's a bit of spice in the pot.

But this? Race is the Maori Party's core business  and for that reason what might have seemed like a 48 hour news firecracker that would spark then fizzle, has more explosive potential than might have first been thought.

This? This was so dumb.

What exactly did Harawira say? The context was a profile tucked away in the Weekend Herald's Review section. Asked, "So how would Harawira feel if one of his seven children came home with a Pakeha partner?" Harawira replied:

"I wouldn't feel comfortable. Like all Pakehas would be happy with their daughters coming home with a Maori boy - and the answer is they wouldn't.

That's just the reality of the world. Let's not cry about it. Let's just live with it and move on."

Cue – somewhat delayed – outrage. But let's get past the 'shock horror' moment and look at the mindset behind the words. Harawira seems to be acknowledging that he's not proud of his viewpoint, but still thinks it's justified.

As if honesty is an excuse for prejudice (does he not think that there are KKK members who don't hold genuine views?). As if the fact that some Pakeha would hold an equivalent view makes his ok (someone should tell him that two wrongs don't make a right). As if this cosy, doorstep prejudice reveals anything except fear of the unfamiliar, which lies at the heart of all racism.

But politically it's bigger than that, for two reasons.

First, it undermines his use of the most powerful weapon in New Zealand race relations – the Treaty of Waitangi. The Maori renaissance since the 1970s, the power of the Waitangi Tribunal and its settlements, the whole movement of the Treaty into the mainstream of New Zealand politics stems from the idea that it signs us all up to a partnership and that we're bound to honour the deal.

Maori and the Pakeha, the tangata whenua and the Crown, the iwi and the tauiwi... the power of the idea is that we're in this together and we've no choice but to get along.

What Harawira said was that he's not so keen on getting along after all. So how can a man who doesn't want his children to have a Pakeha partner preach the partnership of the Treaty?

His quote isn't the language of the Treaty at all; it's the language of the rangatira who didn't sign the Treaty, who wanted to push on alone and see where the chips fell. Yet without the Treaty's partnership ethos, what becomes of modern Maori politics?

The second point is simply that a comment of such unashamed prejudice gives political cover to every racist person or policy he or his party ever come up against. If he can shrug off prejudice by saying, "that's just the reality of the world", then so can anyone else. The moral highground is lost to him.

That quote stands as a barometer of anything an opponent may say, and what's more, of everything he says. His ability to criticise racism is seriously undermined, and therefore his use as a crusader is diminished. Because a crusader is nothing without a sense of righteousness, and his righteousness is gone.

Does this damage the Maori Party? I don't know.

Co-leader Pita Sharples tried to defuse the issue, saying many would share Harawira's move, and in doing so failed to condemn racism and assert partnership. Hardly mana-enhancing.

Yet at the same time, he did say Harawira's views on this were not the party's. Perhaps that gets them far enough away from explosion when the mines laid by that comment go off in the months and years to come. And they will go off. And off.

And so Harawira's comment fade from the public stage, as we move on to another week with other things to argue about. But rest assured, it's not the last time you'll see those words. They'll be back.