Tensions and periodic tantrums are built into coalition
politics, just as compromise and pragmatism are an essential
part of a coalition leader's armoury.
Helen Clark grasped this early on in her prime ministership
and turned it into an art form.
John Key and his Government, schooled in it during three
terms in opposition, learned their lessons well.
Perhaps too well.
For now they are trumping the Labour Party.
The latest manifestation is the sudden - it has been
described as "secret" - accession on Tuesday to the United
Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with
a statement delivered by Maori Party co-leader and Maori
Affairs Minister Dr Pita Sharples to the United Nations in
It has been met with tension, and what might be described as
a tantrum, by the third party in the coalition Government's
bed: Act New Zealand.
Leader Rodney Hide has responded to the news with a display
seldom seen even within the somewhat elastic emotional
parameters of coalition politics.
"The Act party believes that the declaration is divisive and
will set New Zealand on a path to a further divided nation -
separating New Zealand into two, rather than bringing us all
It is the very opposite of Act's policy of one law for all
New Zealanders," Mr Hide said, adding that the party was
"deeply disappointed that he [Mr Key] has failed to honour
the `no surprises' policy set out in the Act-National
Confidence and Supply Agreement".
In November 2005, the vitriol was coming from a different
Still stinging from the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed
Act, Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia attacked the Clark
government of the day for having gone to New York a month
previously "and criticised the draft Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous People as being `unworkable and
New Zealand declined, along with three other countries at
that time including the United States and Australia, to
participate in the declaration invoking, Mrs Turia claimed,
distress among indigenous communities throughout the world at
The Clark government's rationale for its statement of
opposition at the General Assembly back then was that New
Zealand could not agree to a document suggesting there were
two standards of citizenship, or two classes of citizen, when
the Treaty of Waitangi existed, which, it argued, was signed
so that two peoples could co-exist in one nation.
Article 26 of the UN declaration states that indigenous
peoples have the right to own, use, develop or control lands
and territories that they have customarily owned, occupied or
At the level of treaty claims, Labour's chief fear was that
such a declaration was at odds with, and might be used
against the processes already in place under the auspices of
the Waitangi Tribunal.
So while principle ruled, it could also see practical
difficulties were it to endorse the declaration.
The National Party leadership evidently anticipated some
fallout from this week's decision.
The status of such a declaration, it points out, is neither
that of a treaty nor a covenant, is legally non-binding, and
is an "expression of aspiration".
Be that as it may, the statement delivered by Dr Sharples in
support of the declaration acknowledged that "Maori hold a
special status as tangata whenua, the indigenous people of
New Zealand and have an interest in all policy and
This does not go quite so far as endorsing the ambition,
expressed by Dr Sharples to Parliament in 2006, that "As
Maori, our rangatiratanga is expressed in our rights to
determine our own economic, social and cultural development
The Maori Party celebrates the right of self-determination" -
but it comes perilously close to it.
Mr Key and senior National Party figures will be gambling
that this gesture towards the Maori Party will further
enhance the mana of the latter, cement more tightly the
political allegiance between the two parties, and deflate the
more demanding ambitions of radical Maori - personified in
Parliament in the character and rhetoric of Hone Harawira -
while, in practice, giving nothing at all away.
They appear to have decided that the subtlety of principle
should be subjugated to the symbolic glue of pragmatism.
It may make political sense, but while National retreats to
the safety of descriptors such as "aspirational" and
"non-binding", it is hard to escape the conclusion that, on
this matter, it speaks with a forked tongue.