Much to fight for in the Maori seats

Deals on the left... Candidates dipping into their own pockets... culture versus class... there are high stakes at play in the Maori electorates this year 

We all know it could be a fight to the death in the Maori seats this election, but it's startling to think that some candidates are borrowing money off their mortgages just to be able to stand at this election.

It seems the appeal of public service may not be dead after all.

Te Ururoa Flavell said on The Nation that the Maori Party has people "who are paying out of mortgages for houses; they have to fund their own campaign so those people don't enter that lightly".

Now you might wonder whether that's spin to emphasise the fact that his main opponent, Mana, is swimming in Kim Doctom donations. The party that has been accused of forgetting Maori at the bottom and being captured by the "brown mafia" can now play the under-dog. Mana, while it has spending limits in electorates, can pour hundreds of thousands into its volunteers, branded jackets and even the wood to hold up its hoardings (the signs come under the spending limits, but not the frames).

Mana leader Hone Harawira tried to out-poor Flavell, saying he and his wife Hilda had paid for the Mana bus and "we don't have the money, we don't have the resources to stand in all of those seats and do extremely well".

Now that should be taken with a decent hill of salt as well, but the fact that Mana have chosen to focus on Te Tai Tokerau, Waiariki and Ikaroa-Rawhiti is interesting. Flavell has told me the Maori Party wants to win Hauraki-Waikato, but that's a true long shot. And Harawira didn't mention Tamaki Makarau. Which is curious.

The seat has no star candidate and is expected to be very close; Willie Jackson has turned down the invitation to stand for Mana, although he's confident he could walk in if he stood (and he's got a point). Yet Mana is due to announce a candidate by August 4, so perhaps it'll get added to the spending list in the next week or two.

On the other hand, the suggestion has been that Mana might tread softly in Tamaki Makaurau in return for Labour not trying too hard in Waiariki. It seems to serve both parties to let the other win in those seats. Matt McCarten wrote in a Herald on Sunday column just six weeks before becoming David Cunliffe's Chief of Staff that "cooperation to take Waiariki away from the Maori Party is critical".

Labour sources have told The Nation that it's confident of a win in Tamaki Makaurau so long as Mana doesn't stand a strong candidate. Yet with that announcement not yet made, we're yet to see.

Te Tai Tokerau? It seems the parties are leaving that to be a genuine contest, albeit with Kelvin Davis in a very winnable list position. (Though I'd note both Davis and Harawira need Labour's vote not to collapse as National's did in 2002, or Davis might miss out on the list and Tokerau voters might have to make a clean choice between the pair).  

As for Flavell and the mortgages, however he might be using the story to make a point, he won't be making it up and it shows just how brutal the fight for those seats is.

Mana people have told me its prime goal this election is to "kill off the Maori Party". Which I guess makes political sense for a party dependent on the Maori seats; there are only seven and so its own growth is dependent on its opponents failing.

But it also shows that Flavell and some commentators have a point when they say that Mana is a class-based party rather than an ethnicity-based party. Tariana Turia in her valedictory speech said the Maori Party has tried to avoid the rhetoric of right and left to put Maori first, second and third. I've always been dubious of politicians trying to avoid the left-right spectrum. You can't. But is has tried to maintain a different kind of independence; along with New Zealand First, it's the only party in parliament prepared to work with either major party.

The loss of that would be disappointing.

Mana, instead, implies that Maori politics is left-wing politics and the Maori seats must be retained by the Left. It wants to cleave Maori voters (or at least the Maori seats) to a certain class as well as a certain kaupapa. It's good politics for the left in the short-term. And with its commitment to attracting younger and newer voters (Harawira: "Labour and the Greens... should leave Internet-Mana to focus on getting in the new voters"), it's buying time as it seeks to keep younger New Zealanders on the left of politics.

When National does lose, it could lose big given the multiparty strength on the centre-left with Labour, the Greens and (Internet-) Mana. But longer term, as Maori move into the hip-pocket-driven middle-classes, I suspect it's a tactic that will run its course. Prosprity will always move a chunk of people to the right.

But for this year, those Maori seats are more uncertain and more critical than they've been for a long time. Te Tai Tonga and Hauraki-Waikato seem to be pretty safe for Labour, and despite Mana's hopes I haven't come across anyone who thinks Labour will lose Ikaroa-Rawhiti. Most think the Maori Party will lose Turia's Te Tai Hauauru. Harawira and Flavell, while both vulnerable, are expected to keep their seats. Just. Though having said that, there's more mixed opinion on Waiariki.

The real shot in the dark is Tamaki Makaurau. The Maori Party's Rangi McLean is well-known in the electorate, but is hardly a "name". Labour's Peeni Henare is more a name, but I'm told is not very active in the community. Labour's favoured now mostly because of the machine it has at is disposal, the Maori Party's decline at the previous election and in the party vote polls, and the belief of some, after the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election, that the Maori vote is trending back to Labour.

Of course these seats only matter to the general election if Labour can start improving dramatically. But whether they count nationally or only in the fight on the left and the between the Maori MPs, there will be mortgages (and mana and egos) on the line. Certainly ones to watch.