Thursday, October 23, 2008

Which way will the Maori Party jump?

(Cross-posted from Larvatus Prodeo, and aimed mainly at foreign readers)

The polls have begun to tighten in the NZ election, with several showing the National Party's expected majority evaporating under the pressure of the campaign and the international financial meltdown. Meanwhile, the parties are also deciding their coalition preferences. The Greens have announced explicitly that they will back a Labour government, and ACT has done the same for National. United Future hasn't made an explicit arrangement that I can recall, but would clearly be happier with a National government, while National leader John Key has ruled out any sort of arrangement with New Zealand First (though he was clearly expecting them not to be a factor anyway). But neither coalition is sure of a majority, even without the complication of a potential overhang - which leaves the Maori Party as likely king- (or rangitira-) maker.

So which way will they jump? The media has been full of speculation over the last few days, aided by the differing positions of the party's co-leaders (Tariana Turia is clearly keen for a deal with National as utu for Labour's betrayal over the Foreshore and Seabed; Pita Sharples prefers a deal with Labour). On the policy front, the party clearly has more in common with Labour than National (it is generally seen as being to the left of Labour on economic issues), and its bottom line of entrenching the Maori seats would be very difficult for National to swallow (particularly since they've been courting the redneck vote and promising to abolish them for the last five years). Labour OTOH might grumble, but they have no fundamental objections, and it basically matches their policy of leaving the seats' fate in the hands of Maori. More importantly, the grassroots membership, who will be consulted on any deal, are likely to swing towards Labour - meaning the party leadership will have to have a very attractive offer to persuade them to accept supporting National.

Of course, there is a third option: the party could abstain on confidence and supply, let government fall where it may, then sit on the cross-benches and act as a veto on legislation. This would neatly defuse any Pakeha whining about the Maori Party exploiting their overhang to produce an undemocratic outcome, while maximising power; instead of having to make one deal, once, whoever is in government would have to come crawling to them on every vote. This would pose no real problems for Labour - they've been governing under such arrangements for the past six years. But it would pose real problems for National; they still haven't grasped MMP properly yet, do not play well with others, and are likely to get sulky and pouty at the thought of parties refusing to vote for policies they fundamentally oppose. But there are two problems with such a plan. Firstly, its practicality depends on the numbers; there has to be no other real alternative the government can go to for votes. The Greens aren't a problem to this; either they're part of Labour's legislative minority, or just as unlikely to agree with National. But if NZ First gets in, the plan is probably a non-starter. Secondly, its difficult to imagine that National would put up with this sort of arrangement for long; they'd simply call an election at the first legislative defeat, citing the need for a "mandate" - a highly desirable (for them) tactic as most of the other parties would be broke and unable to seriously compete. OTOH, a clear statement that he Maori party will not tolerate a mid-term election and will throw confidence and supply behind Labour rather than have one may be enough to prevent such a tactic.

Whichever option the Maori Party choose, the other parties - and the New Zealand electorate - are going to have to get used to Maori wielding real power and having a real influence on policy. Hopefully we'll be able to cope.