Which Hone will return to parliament?

Hone Harawira has won himself a second chance. He won't get a third. So the question for him next year is whether he wants to be a leader or a rebel

All Maori politics is tribal politics, and so the Maori Party's forgiveness of Hone Harawira today, if a little reluctant, is an olive branch to Nga Puhi and others in the north as much as it is to the man himself.

Coverage of Maori politics is, frankly, poor in this country with pakeha journalists – and I include myself in this – often missing the way power is used and deals are done. But my thoughts about the Harawira saga keep coming back to shame, which as always been a powerful social lever in Polynesian cultures.

It always seemed to me that the Maori Party's tough approach was a way of shaming a youngster who had stepped over the line, in the hope that he would learn a lesson and return a stronger advocate for the cause. (And, of course, it played well with pakeha New Zealand).

I've imagined him returning to the north, sitting on the marae, and being buffetted about the ears by kaumatua telling him to grow up and, if he wants to be a leader, to start acting like one.

The will of those kaumatua seemed to be take Harawira in hand and, like some sort of six million dollar ma, make him better than he was before. They weren't going to dump him. Not yet anyway. Not wanting to insult the hapu and iwi of the north, nor lose Te Tai Tokerau, the Maori Party seem to have accepted that. For now.

There was always the chance that Harawira would refuse to be chastised and walk away in high dudgeon. Communication within the Maori Party is said to be lacking at the best of times and there is obvious personal tension between him and Tariana Turia. He is a gut rebel; she's an instinctive conservative.

So the Maori Party leadership took a huge gamble, the seat and their unity at stake. Of course, they shouldn't have had to. Harawira should neither have made the choice he did in Europe nor used the racist language in his email. It was lazy behaviour and lazy language.

The Maori Party's core political project (as opposed to their policy projects on behalf of Maori, which rest on the foreshore and seabed and Whanau Ora) is to become the acceptable face of Maoridom; to show the political majority that hold sway in this country that Maori are not the bludging, grievance-obsessed charicature they're so often reduced to in public debate; and to become the natural co-party of government, whichever big party is in favour.

So Harawira's hubris on the taxpayer dollar could hardly have been a worse look.

But he's hardly the first MP to trade in racist stereotypes (I'll start the list with Winston Peters. Feel free to add to it), so there is a way through this. Following today's full repentance, I don't think his story has to end here. Assuming his repentance is genuine, that is.

If Harawira has learnt his lesson, if shame has melted some of the man's arrogance and he has learnt some respect, it will have been worth it for the Maori Party. As Buddy Mikaere, the man who began the email argument with Harawira, said today, "Lets hope that it is an indicator of a new approach by him."

Harawira at his best is a valuable asset. Like few politicians in the House these days, he understands working class New Zealanders and speaks of their concerns. The tragedy for him politically is that his racism has alienated so many in the working class suburbs, because he's one of them, even down to his righteous rage. I know, he's wealthy enough in his own right, but that doesn't define him.

He's passionate about Maori health, smoking in particular. He has a presence and a raw intelligence. He has an instinctual antipathy of privilege, snobbery and vested interests. What he's lacked is humility and respect.

So the question now is which Hone returns to parliament in the new year. If it's a Hone that's humble, has converted his arrogance into self assurance and is willing to knuckle down and rebuild his mana, then he will be a powerful voice for his people, a real leader.

But if the cocky rebel returns with a veneer of contrition that disappears like the swallows at the end of summer, he'll be gone from the party before the year's out. And the signs aren't all good. At today's press conferece he quibbled over whether his email was racist because, he said, racism is defined as "the power to impose your racial views on the rest of society". He's right about that, but wrong to have said that he couldn't have been racist because as an individual MP he lacked such power.

To the contrary, as an MP he has considerable power – the power to demand media attention, the power of representation, the power that comes from being close to government. A true leader would see that, and given his determination to stay in the party, he's obviously decided he doesn't want to walk away from that power. He can make some real gains for Maori. On his own he would be a trumpet blowing in the wind, and he knows it.

So he's been given a second chance, but now he needs to repay his iwi and his party by fulfilling his potential. Is he willing to suck in his ego and actually lead by serving? Or would he rather yell from the sidelines? Because you can't do both.