After almost a decade in Government, the Maori Party are no more. Born from the ashes of the foreshore and seabed controversy, their future now hangs in the balance and has forced National to kowtow to Winston Peters. Shane Cowlishaw reports.
This shouldn’t have happened.
An experienced, incumbent MP. A favoured up-and-comer. Polls pointing to their safety.
But the Maori Party is gone. Knocked out of Parliament after failing to win a single seat, and attracting just 1.1 percent of the party vote.
The party’s future was riding squarely on the shoulders of its co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, who was until last night the Maori Development Minister and MP for Waiariki.
But, in a result that had been dismissed by most commentators in the past few weeks, Flavell was unseated by Labour’s former weatherman Tamati Coffey.
With Flavell gone, hope briefly turned to the electorate of Te Tai Hauaruru where candidate Howie Tamati was tipped to have a chance in unseating Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe.
That was not to be either though, and the Maori Party ceased to exist in Parliament.
Alongside Flavell, another casualty was his political partner Marama Fox, who was likely watching the party vote counter like a hawk needing 1.2 percent to get in if Flavell retained his seat.
In the end it proved pointless, as Maori support swung strongly behind Labour delivering them all seven of the Maori seats – something Fox likened to a “beaten wife” going back to their partner.
In a Newsroom article on the Waiariki electorate earlier this week, Flavell was confident but admitted the support rallying behind Jacinda Ardern was an unknown.
“Kelvin Davis could be deputy prime minister for goodness sake, so you can’t blunt that and I’m not going to say it hasn’t had an effect, of course it has, because we’ve seen it in the polls.”
Flavell’s demise was possibly partly due to a lack of time spent in the electorate as his Ministerial duties kept him away.
But more likely it was the party’s long association with the National Party that finally came home to roost: it is one of the quirks of MMP that minor coalition parties eventually end up paying for the perceived failures of the Government.
The crumpling of the Maori Party was the main thorn in a largely jubilant night for National.
If the party had maintained its support and brought back two or three MPs then the status quo government could have potentially continued.
Instead, English and his team will have to endure bruising coalition negotiations with Winston Peters as they try and bring black and blue together.
Speaking to media after his speech, it was clear the Prime Minister was disappointed with the Maori Party’s failure.
“I feel some real sympathy for the Maori Party. They made some huge gains for Maoridom and we know that because we worked with them on that. And they’ll feel very disappointed I think that the gains they made weren’t recognised through support for them.”
He was confident National could continue to make those gains for Maori, but it is clear their support has swung even further behind Labour.
Disbelief and anger
Flavell himself was a mixture of disbelief and barely contained anger after conceding defeat.
His plan was to put in three more years and step away from politics on a high.
But that dream is no more and he ruled out running again.
He hinted at potential disquiet within the party, saying there were “things to discuss with the executive,” but now was not the time.
Ultimately, he took responsibility but dismissed suggestions the party had become too close to National.
“People say that but, hell, we got $400m plus in the last three years...we’ve moved legislation and done hugely transformative things around Whanau Ora. Whanau Ora sitting there now, pffftt, what’s going to happen? That’s the disappointment," Flavell told reporters.
The loss of two experienced MPs
Politics aside, Parliament has lost two experienced operators in Flavell and Fox.
The former, an elder statesman of the party, has quietly beavered away as Maori Affairs Minister.
Fox is arguably an even bigger loss. An extremely hard worker, she is respected by politicians across the spectrum as well as the media for her straight-talking, often taking on the role of criticising the Government while leaving her co-leader conflict-free as a Minister.
With another term on the opposition benches a strong possibility for Labour, the question will be whether the plight of Maori suffers after they overwhelmingly switched their support to the red camp.
For Flavell, that’s a question Maori voters may soon be wondering themselves.
“I’m just sad for the dilemma that’s been put in front of our people, OK we’ve lost all our seats and if Labour are not part of a governing arrangement...Te Ao Maori is going to wake up and say ‘what the hang happened?’ and I’ll say ‘you spoke, you gave it, that’s how it is’.”