The selection of Chris McKenzie as the Maori Party candidate to replace Tariana Turia in the Te Tai Hauauru electorate shows just how much difficulty the party is now in. The party is fighting for its life, and is in the midst of an attempt to replace its most important leaders, yet its having trouble selecting impressive candidates. This doesn’t bode well for its future. McKenzie is certainly a competent candidate, but to survive, the party probably needs to be finding higher-profile candidates.
The Maori Party will face a huge uphill struggle in retaining the Te Tai Hauauru electorate. The party really need to pull something very special out of the bag in this electorate, and it’s failed to do so with Chris McKenzie. It’s difficult to see how such a relatively unknown candidate has much chance, especially since the Maori Party has been slowly but surely losing large numbers of votes in the seat. Even under Turia’s candidacy, the party is losing its grip on Te Tai Hauauru. Turia’s majority has been decreasing in each election, and even if she had stood again in 2014, there would have been a very real chance of her losing the seat herself.
Unfortunately for Chris McKenzie, he also resides in Tawa, which is the far south of the Te Tai Hauauru, whereas the most populist parts of the seat are Wanganui, Palmerston North and Taranaki. And his roots are in Tokoroa, again only a marginal area within the electorate. Geography means a lot for Maori voters.
The selection of McKenzie is also says a lot about the state of the Maori Party. They’ve had to select someone that is a political insider within the parliamentary offices of the party. This gives the impression of ‘palace politics’, which will alienate many Te Tai Hauauru voters. When a party is reduced to picking candidates from their own office staff, it suggests that party’s roots in the real world are withering.
At the moment the Maori Party organisation appears particularly weak within the Te Tai Hauauru seat. It’s still strong within Wanganui – where Turia has built her own loyal base – but many of the party’s former activists appear to have shifted either to Mana or back to Labour.
This is personified by the likely Labour Party candidate, Adrian Rurawhe. He had followed Tariana Turia out of the Labour Party at the time of the Foreshore and Seabed legislation but has now returned to Labour. He’s well known in the electorate and has particularly strong links to the locally important Ratana Church – he’s the great-grandson of the prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana. He’s also related to former Labour MPs Iriaka and Matiu Ratana. It’d be very difficult for the Maori Party candidate Chris McKenzie to beat him next year.
What’s more, there’s still talk at the moment of the Labour and Mana parties agreeing to an electoral accommodation deal for the 2014 election. So in seats like Te Tai Hauauru, the calculated absence of a Mana candidate would make a Labour win even more likely. And in return Labour would stand aside in Mana’s two targeted seats: Te Tai Tokerau and Waiariki.
The Maori Party faces an even tougher battle to retain the Tamaki-Makaurau seat. Finding a replacement for Pita Sharples will be particularly fraught. Sharples and the Maori Party have never had a strong organisation base in Tamaki-Makaurau and there are no natural successors for the male co-leader. Sharples came close to losing the seat in 2011 and there seems little chance of the party locating the kind of the candidate able to turn the tide around in Tamaki-Makaurau.
So in the end, it looks like Te Ururoa Flavell is likely to be the only Maori Party MP standing after the 2014 election. The reality is that people like Chris McKenzie might well have made excellent candidates and MPs but the Maori Party has left it too late to foster them into the limelight and trial them as political leaders. Instead the Maori Party has acted simply as a political and career vehicle for its two dominant personalities, failing to rejuvenate and allow any other talent to bloom. The party will now suffer because of that.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a political lecturer at University of Otago