Super-City needs super-glue

The rush to reshape Auckland into the country’s first Super-City could be a stretch too far for New Zealand’s governing coalition. It will take some super-glue to stop the splits

Everyone knew John Key would face a challenge keeping his National-led coalition flying with Act as its right wing and the Maori Party as its left. Few thought the coordination problems would start in his own party.

National list MP Tau Henare’s outburst at Act local government minister Rodney Hide’s intransigent opposition to the provision of specific seats for Maori representatives at the Super-City council table has been dismissed too lightly.

Henare has a reputation for shooting from the lip – but his sprays are generally more noted for their humour than their venom. Not this time.

Journalists and politicians were forced to resort to ****s in reporting or repeating his comments about Hide in public. So far, no-one has been able to explain what caused him to explode so pyrotechnically that his old sparring partner Trevor Mallard must have been tempted to recommend anger management.

There was no hint of a problem when Henare was appointed on 18 May to the special select committee reviewing the Super-City establishment bill.

He was seen as a loyal team player – the New Zealand First MP who stayed with the previous National coalition when Winston Peters was sacked by Jenny Shipley. He was the former Maori seat member and Maori Affairs minister who backed the subsequent National opposition’s policy of eliminating Maori seats.

Henare came to the select committee knowing that the Key Cabinet had ruled out a Royal Commission recommendation for specific Maori representation on the Auckland region’s new governing body – but also hearing John Key say that the decision was not “set in stone”. It must have seemed that there was room for negotiation.

Behind the scenes, Key and Hide were continuing private discussions. On the TVNZ programme Q+A, Hide has just confirmed that the Prime Minister came to him with a proposition to address the issue. According to Hide:

“He came across to see me on June 3rd. He said here’s an option that we would have. You could introduce the bill, the Maori Party and National could vote to put in Maori seats. The Act party could vote against, and that could be a fix

‘I said, well, they could do that because they’d have the numbers in parliament, but that I couldn’t be the Minister introducing that that bill, and that I’d have to stand down. I pledged that we would continue to support him as Prime Minister and honour our agreement on confidence and supply.”

A month after that private discussion, Henare was appointed to chair a sub-group of the select committee to consult with Auckland Maori on representation issues.

His colleagues on the Maori representation sub-committee were his equally outspoken Maori Party coalition partner, Hone Harawira, the Labour opposition leader-in-waiting Shane Jones, National first-termer from Tauranga Simon Bridges and the new Greens co-leader Meteria Turei.

No doubt, they ran into the same complex, competing interests that the Royal Commission tried to satisfy and the Maori Party is still trying to reconcile.

The mana whenua Maori with ancestral linkages to Auckland – Ngati Whatua, Waikato Tainui, Pare Hauraki and Ngati Wai – and the taura here Maori of Auckland, whose ancestral roots are elsewhere, agree that provisions for representation are required by the Treaty of Waitangi but have very different views on the representation they each should have.

The Royal Commission did not offer a workable solution. It suggested four mana whenua Maori iwi should appoint a single Maori representative, and taura here Maori, with a much smaller set of Treaty rights and responsibilities, should elect two.

The Commission then passed the obvious problems back to Auckland Maori and Parliament to solve.

The select committee and sub-committee processes must have been something of a Damascus experience for Henare.

According to his colleague Hone Harawira:

"it sounds like submissions are running about 70% in favour of Maori seats, 20-25% not fussed one way or the other, and only about 5% being against them.”

It was enough to produce a dramatic change in Henare’s attitude.

By mid-August, the MP who once said there was no place for ethnically-based electoral systems in 21st century New Zealand was singing a different song:

“Maori political representation signifies progress, eight Maori councillors’ elected on to the Auckland city council in the last 150 years does not.”

In an email to National caucus colleagues, he revealed his change of stance and blew the whistle on what he understood was at stake in the private dealings between Prime Minister Key and Rodney Hide.

“The Act party has threatened to end its relationship with National if we allow Maori seats on the Super-City. Despite multiple arguments, its mind cannot be changed. I have tried.”

Henare might have overstated Act’s position, but Prime Minister Key did not waste time on argument, or waiting for the formal report of the special select committee to parliament later this week. He would have calculated that – at best – the committee was deadlocked over the issue of Maori representation. At worst – a majority recommendation for Maori seats was on its way.

Instead, Key pre-empted the select committee report, and Henare’s call for a caucus discussion about a free vote on Maori representation, by pushing through a Cabinet decision confirming: no Maori seats.

The outcome will reinforce Auckland Maori suspicions about the trustworthiness of parliamentary process – and convert the stress that should be felt by the Act wing of the coalition into a self-inflicted wound in the very core of the Key government.

No wonder Winston Peters is grinning like a Cheshire cat.