Tuesday, April 04, 2006

John Armstrong: Brash playing into Turia's hands

Thank you, Dr Brash. The Maori Party could not have hoped for a better advertisement to kick off its campaign to boost the number of Maori seats than the National Party leader threatening once more to abolish them.

Don Brash's criticism of the Maori electoral option as "state-sanctioned separatism" instantly lifted the profile of the post-Census exercise which determines the number of Maori seats in Parliament.

The outcome hinges on the size of the Maori roll and - as one Government MP observed yesterday - nothing is more guaranteed to drive Maori on to the Maori roll than Dr Brash threatening to axe the Maori seats.

The Maori Party should be grateful for any help it can get. The four-month option comes at a crucial period in the fledgling party's history.

First, Maori voters are voting tactically, casting their constituency vote for the Maori Party and their party vote for Labour. The more Maori seats, the more chance of the Maori Party winning them and the greater its ability to really hold the balance of power in Parliament.

Second, the next option does not occur until 2012. The current exercise will set the number of Maori seats for the next two elections - the critical period during which the Maori Party will either establish itself as a lasting political force or the seats revert back to Labour.

Technically, there would be 13 Maori seats if every Maori voter went on the Maori roll. The expectation is that the number will increase by one, but by no more than two.

The Maori roll has almost trebled in size since 1990, suggesting it will be difficult to get many more voters to switch from the general roll.

The last option in 2001 saw just under 14,000 voters switch to the Maori roll. But nearly 5000 went back the other way.

The Maori seats went up by one to seven.

While the Maori Party has identified general seats with a high Maori vote - East Coast, Rotorua, Northland, Taupo, Whangarei and Bay of Plenty - a successful option requires the party to mobilise at a grassroots level for four long months just six months after an election campaign.

It will be hard graft, despite the standard Government-funded advertising campaign and voter enrolment drive.

However, there is one key difference between this option and its predecessors: the presence of the Maori Party itself.

The party's performance will be a significant factor in whether people switch to the Maori roll.

It was not helped by Labour's refusal to include it in its post-election negotiations. It has nothing concrete to show in terms of policy victories. Tariana Turia has sought to make a virtue of rejection by reinforcing the party's independence from Labour and its bargaining power in future coalition talks by indicating her party might conceivably strike a deal with National next time.

That has been flagged very carefully. Mrs Turia and her colleagues are wary that many of their supporters cast their party vote for Labour.

So, for every nod towards the right - such as Mrs Turia's surprise appearance at the Act conference - there is a corresponding tilt the other way, such as yesterday's warning to National not to count on Maori Party backing if it persists in trying to abolish the Maori seats.

The Maori Party clearly intends being the best advertisement for switching rolls. Its voting for Opposition measures has seen it start making a difference. But not a big one as yet.

Its understandable caution as a new party swimming in dangerous parliamentary waters may yet prove an impediment in persuading Maori to shift rolls in sufficient quantity to force a radical redrawing of the electoral map.

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