Alley cat among the kereru

It might have been considered an expensive waste of time by Prime Minister John Key, but it is a safe bet the results of the Te Tai Tokerau by-election are being scrutinised by his re-election team. For if nothing else, the win by Hone Harawira to regain his place in Parliament, this time under the banner of his new Mana party, has thrown an alley cat among the kereru.

The arrival of Mana in the House - with its freely antagonistic stance towards many of the Government's policy positions - is one thing; its potential to upset National's coalition apple cart in November's general election is quite another.

It will be recalled that then Maori Party MP for Te Tai Tokerau Mr Harawira left the party in February in protest at his colleagues' acquiescence to National's platform in general, and in particular over the Marine and Coastal Areas Act, the replacement of the old foreshore and seabed law. He formed the Mana party to contest the by-election his resignation forced.

Labour stood sitting list MP Kelvin Davis against him, and the Maori Party - amid allegations and counter-allegations of agreement-breaking - eventually put up Solomon Tipene. On Saturday, the electorate had its say: Mr Harawira regained his seat, but with a greatly reduced majority, Labour came a creditable second and the Maori Party a long way third.

National did not field a candidate. In 2008, in Maori Party colours, the Te Tai Tokerau MP held a 6308 majority over Labour. At the weekend this was slashed to 867.

The significance of the result and the appended voting figures, as Mr Key must know, is not that Mr Harawira is back in Parliament and, while in times of such fiscal duress such expense is not to be trifled with, nor is it that this diversion has cost the taxpayer an estimated $500,000. It is in its auguries for November 26.

The bitterness between the renegade MP from the North and the two co-leaders of his erstwhile party is hardly insignificant. And while senior figures in Maoridom might have hoped for a post-vote truce, the feuding, if anything, appears to have escalated, barely concealed by Mr Harawira's passive-aggressive overtures: "If we can manage our relationships so that we're not fighting one another and focus on the needs of our people, then we might be able to bring the Maori Party and Mana together, maybe with [all the] seats, Mana Maori," he said yesterday.

The underlying message is that he considers himself heir apparent to the Parliamentary Maori leadership. It is one that neither Tariana Turia nor Dr Pita Sharples will take lying down.

And nor, when the full implications strike home, will Mr Key. In Saturday's victory - albeit marginal - lie the seeds of potential electoral defeat for Maori. Should Mana contest seats now held by the Maori Party in November, and the two fail to come to an agreement on representation in those areas Mana believes it has a hope of victory, there exists the distinct possibility of each cannibalising the vote of the other and allowing Labour to come through the middle.

The dilemma for Mrs Turia and Dr Sharples, is that a conciliatory approach might simply strengthen Mr Harawira's hand and the idea of Mana Maori, an alliance that would in all likelihood sit somewhere to the left of the present Maori Party - or what may be left of it after November's election. All this may be irrelevant should National retain its irrepressible popularity ratings, but in politics anything is possible.

Sure-footed Mr Key and his lieutenants have made some false moves of late - over safety at Pike River, for instance - and the full implications of the Canterbury rescue packages for many of its citizens still trapped in limbo have yet to play out.

A belated but harsh winter with power cuts and price rises, a defaulting Greece and imploding euro zone forcing interest rates up and laying a further deadening hand on the New Zealand economy, and a deflating semi-final knockout in the Rugby World Cup is all it might take for Labour in cahoots with the Greens - and with confidence and supply from a newly aligned Mana Maori - to stage an electoral upset.

 

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