Tariana Turia tries to lure National voters

While the polls tell Pita Sharples that a coalition with Labour is the only realistic strategy, Tariana Turia is escalating her efforts to attract National and its base

I’ve rarely seen Dr Pita Sharples squirm, so when it happens it’s noteworthy. Last week on Marae (hosted by the excellent Shane Taurima, who also asked the hardest questions in TVNZ’s leaders' debate), Sharples was undoubtedly squirming as the talented Labour candidate Louisa Wall pressed him on the issue of the party vote. Her argument was as straight-forward as it was logical: with the Maori party vote going to Labour by such a large margin and the Maori Party claiming to be all about representing Maori, then his party's only choice is to form a coalition with Labour, not National. Pita winced because he knows it true and because work on a Maori-National Coalition deal is well advanced, while there has been bugger-all negotiation with Labour or the Greens.

Sensing concerns for the right, Rodney Hide claimed yesterday that it would be “damaging to the New Zealand political system if the Maori Party finds itself in the role of kingmaker after the election.” Now, I'm sure that the idea of brown folk being decision-makers doesn't bother Hide one iota. But the redneck, raw meat voters Act is targeting to reach 4 percent in the polls do mind, and Hide seems willing to do whatever it takes–even going beyond his embarrassing dancing and climate change conspiracy theories–to win push their buttons.

But the political reality that the good Dr S. and other Maori Party MPs have to face is that their credibility rests on them being an authentic voice for Maori. If they don't represent that voice when they get their chance, New Zealand First’s fall from grace is a reminder of how punishing the electorate can be. The Maori Party are as focused on legacy as John Key (the National leader wants an excellent reference from his time as Prime Minister on his career goal path), and so this year's election is merely a stepping stone to 2011. The only way the Maori Party can side-step this authenticity issue is by lifting its own party vote. If they can do that, they have the mana to justify the big calls. But how can the Maori Party effectively do that when Maori are telling them they’ll give those votes to the Labour Party? Where, oh where, can they find party votes to ‘legitimize’ the betrayal of their own constituency?

Enter Tariana Turia, stage door right. In Flaxmere this week she announced that, while it wasn't in her party's policy, she wants to scrap the dole... Where the hell did that come from?

We too easily forget Tariana Turia, with the more genial Pita Sharples as the smiling man up front. To use a Bill English-ism,  she isn’t a soft liberal. She voted against the Civil Unions Act, and is a staunch as conservative, even a radical conservative if you will, and the animosity between her and Helen Clark makes the relationship between Clark and Key look positively romantic. While Sharples and Hone Harawira may have personal doubts about a deal with the Devil in a blue tie, Turia certainly doesn’t. As a Conservative, she sees a lot more in common with the type of National Party Jim Bolger headed and her hatred of Welfare stems from a belief that being subservient to Government is not the way to stride forwards (although it seems that that government-created make-work schemes are somehow ok).

By making a call as radical as scrapping the dole, who does Tariana suddenly appeal to? Conservative National supporters, more blue-neck than redneck. They suddenly see a National Party Coalition Partner and the Maori Party suddenly finds new pakeha party votes, offering it the authenticity it needs to get a better deal out of National. If you're sceptical, witness Turia's two ticks campaign and her comments today that "We've had lots of Pakeha people emailing us and telling us they will give their vote to the Maori Party".

The possibility of a National-Maori coalition throws up so many questions–and opportunities–that it’s difficult to know who is getting the deal and who is buying the lemon. Does John Key really get what the Maori Party mean by a "treaty partner"? Or for him is is it just about closing the deal? And do the Maori Party think that when you dance with the devil, the devil really changes?

This reminds me of a local spin on an old story I heard once: a kiwi bird was strolling alongside the Waikato river when a weta asked if the kiwi could help it cross the river by sitting on the kiwi’s beak. The kiwi wasn’t so sure and asked, “How do I know that half way through you won’t bite me on the beak and drown me”? The weta responded, saying, “If I bite you, we both drown”. This logic was good enough for the kiwi and the pair set off across the Waikato. Half way across, the weta bites the kiwi  and as they both start to drown, the kiwi cries out, “all I wanted was a Maori upper-house and some basic recognition of identity, why have you bitten me and killed us both?” To which the weta says, “I’m so sorry, but I just can’t help but sell public assets. I’m a Nat, it’s in my nature to flog them off to my corporate mates”.


Ed's note: Click here to see Pita Sharples talk about how a treaty partner is different from a coalition partner, in a recent interview he did with Martyn.