Why the Maori Party could be left, right out

National has put in another commanding poll performance, yet the short-term prospects and long-term ambitions of the Maori Party could yet have a signficant impact on this year's election race

Another poll, another list of government parties showing National and its coalition partners looking good for another term – ACT is there with Epsom; United Future has Ohariu; and with more than both of those put together is the under-appreciated Maori Party. Yet nothing it does this year should be taken for granted, least of all by National.

The One News-Colmar Brunton poll was more good news for National, giving it a majority that would allow it to govern alone. It's an election year launching pad few even in National would have dared hoped for so deep into its second term and is reflected in a striking 2014 upturn in the left-right gap in Pundit's Poll of Polls. No-one, however, expects such a lead to survive an election campaign. So those minor parties are vital, and while Richard Prebble gets headlines talking of an eight-seat ACT renaissance, the Maori Party's existing strength is barely mentioned.

Why? In part because the party is in a state of transition as its mastermind, Tariana Turia, prepares for retirement and its other founder, Dr Pita Sharples, looks to be in trouble in his seat, Tamaki Makaurau. Waiariki MP and recently minted co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell looks the only safe bet come election day.

Yet one or two seats could yet be crucial come coalition negotiations and every pollster, in accordance with tradition and the past two terms, bundles the government's current coalition neatly together into a potential post-2014 government.

It looks good for National, but the reality is foggier. A combination of hints from the Maori Party itself and political logic suggests that National would be wrong to be presumptuous.

The Maori Party's decision in 2008 to ally itself with the fresh and popular new Key administration was a political masterstroke. It gave the new Prime Minister a statement about mana-enhancing Treaty partnership and unity that sent a message to his party's base (at a time of immense high spirits) that his was a government that wouldn't play the race card; in return the Maori Party got concrete commitments to Whanau Ora and two seats at the table. Perhaps more than else, it made the Maori Party relevant and told the left that after several generations the Maori vote could no longer be taken for granted.

The six years since however have not been as mana-enhancing as the party's co-leaders might have hoped. John Key – however solid his personal relationship with these coalition partners – has not seized the opportunity to make race relations part of his legacy and the commitment to Whanau Ora has tended to shrivel come budget time. Worst of all, its supporters have drifted away, unconvinced that the deliverables were worth the deal.

At Ratana Pa this year, the party was dropping hints left, right and centre about its future, clearly signalling – to the right this time – that it still shouldn't be taken for granted.

Consider this from a Fairfax story, January 24:

When asked whether it was time for the Maori Party to move away from National, Sharples conceded "it probably is".

"I think we've already started to be honest," he said.

This did not necessarily mean moving closer to Labour "but we have certain things in train and I think it's time we hoed into those and finished those off and some of those are with the support of National Government and some of them are not."

Progress on issues such as adequate housing and addressing poverty had not been fast enough, he said.

That message of impending separation from National was reinforced by his successor. This from TVNZ:

Maori Party co leader Te Ururoa Flavell says he thinks it's fair to say that the the party has got the message that "our people" are not comfortable with the relationship with National.

"And so it's important then that we open that discussion up again with our people, to take our time on it and to get it right," he told reporters at Ratana.

"Three years is a long time, and with the possibilities of a different coalition it's important that we take it seriously and we don't just follow the same pattern in the past. So we'll be doing that."

The language is unambiguous – "we don't just follow the same pattern". Put simply, the Maori Party can't afford to. Given that the majority of those who voted for Turia, Sharples and Flavell in their electorates gave their party vote to Labour, the Maori Party's tilt to the right could never last forever. The Key deal came with a time limit and my guess is that Flavell, who leans a little more to the left anyway, is calling last orders.

Turia's retirement makes such a tactical change easier. For her the move away from Labour was in part personal – she felt betrayed over the Foreshore and Seabed bill. With her exit, hostilities between the Maori Party and Labour can be put to bed.

Most of all the political maths is compelling. The Maori Party's poll trajectory has been gently downward since 2008 and has stayed below two percent for months now in our Poll of Polls. If the party goes with National for a third term, it is putting its very existence in jeopardy.

As for its oft-repeated ability to deliver gains for Maori, well, there's no sign of that improving if the existing coalition were to get another term; even less so if that coalition has to make room for Colin Craig's Conservatives. If the government's numbers slipped as you'd expect in a third term – and especially if Key decided to walk away – the temptation to dig out that old race card may prove too much for National to resist.

So the Maori Party will be looking at its short-term prospects and most of all its ability to survive this year's election with more relevance than, say, United Future. In other words, it needs electorate wins and that means giving past voters a new reason to turn out.

Could Turia and co swing one last big win out of National before the election to display the benefits of being inside the tent? If not, surely the prospect is that Labour will want the Maori Party more – and be willing to promise it more policy wins as part of a centre-left coalition. It's easy to see that more could be gained from a coalition including the Greens and Mana than it will from one with the Conservatives and ACT.

In that case, the question is what the Maori Party and Labour both want most and what they might be open to trading.

Perhaps Labour can be taken at face value and will go for broke in the Maori seats, attempting to drive the Maori Party out of parliament. But that's a gamble too.

Whichever way it plays out, those three red dots reliably placed in National's column at each poll are by no means seats John Key can bank on. And that's just one more reason that even with his commanding lead in the party vote and preferred Prime Minister polls, John Key is a long way from being able to rest easy ahead of election day.