Tuesday, May 02, 2006

John Armstrong: National deputy on right track with call for rethink

His colleagues claim he simply said something he did not mean to say. But mistake or not, Gerry Brownlee deserves credit for suggesting the National Party take a hard look at its pledge to abolish the Maori seats.

National has to ask itself how long it keeps luring voters down this dead-end street under false pretences when its more pressing priority is building a solid working relationship with the Maori Party.

Sometimes the only exit from a policy cul-de-sac is to back out slowly.

National’s deputy leader appeared to be gently nudging his party towards engaging reverse gear at the weekend - only to be jumped on by his boss, who insists National is not about to dilute its pledge.

The result is confusion as to exactly where National now stands - something its MPs were subsequently trying to thrash out during a closed-door session on policy development yesterday.

The trouble is National wants the best of both worlds. It wants to keep its promise to axe the Maori seats for the votes that brings the party’s way. It also needs to establish a rapport with the Maori Party before the next election in the likelihood it will need its backing afterwards.

Reaching such an understanding is going to be difficult enough, yet National persists with a policy that threatens the Maori Party’s very existence.

The policy also comes a long way down National’s "must do" list. National would be unlikely to get the numbers in Parliament as other support parties would lack the stomach for what would be a particularly divisive measure.

The promise is, therefore, somewhat hollow. Its credibility is correspondingly devalued. As Labour was quick to point out, Mr Brownlee’s apparent willingness to discard it suggests National would willingly drop a supposed bottom line if that stood between it and power.

But Mr Brownlee could justifiably argue that National would be naive not to bring such policy into line with political reality - just as it is doing by firming up its opposition to visits by nuclear-powered ships.

It is better to be transparent well in advance of the election, rather than pretending to be sticking with a policy that everyone knows will be shelved once National reaches the negotiating table.

However, the difficulty with the promise to abolish the Maori seats is that it does not stand in isolation. The pledge symbolically underpins National’s fundamental assertion that Maori not receive any favourable treatment. Making an exception for the Maori seats would make a nonsense of that wider stance - one which sparked the party’s resurgence in the last parliamentary term and one in which Don Brash has invested a lot of his personal political capital.

There is already concern within the party that since the election, National has been blurring its differentiation from Labour on too many policy fronts.

Mr Brownlee’s remark - a response to a reporter’s question following his considered speech to the party’s northern region conference - is consequently being explained away as a slip of the tongue.

The other interpretation is that the party is speaking with a forked tongue. Mr Brownlee is sending one message to the Maori Party, while Dr Brash is sending a different one to Pakeha voters.

The more likely reality is that National’s wooing of the Maori Party was always going to be a long and delicate courtship filled with tentative advances and coy retreats.

Mr Brownlee’s advance is the latest. It won’t be the last.

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