A fight for the Maori Party’s leadership has begun at Ratana today, with MP Te Ururoa Flavell officially challenging incumbent co-leader Pita Sharples.
Former Te Tai Tonga MP Rahui Katene has also thrown her hat in the ring to replace Tariana Turia as both co-leader and Te Tai Hauāuru MP.
The challenges are the latest in an ongoing spat about who will lead the party into the next election, and what direction the party should take.
Ms Turia announced she will stand down before the next election to let new blood take over the party – and urged Dr Sharples to do the same.
But last week, Dr Sharples unveiled he had no plans to stand down, saying he’d continue to co-lead the party after next year’s election.
Today, as the Ratana Church celebrates its birthday, Mr Flavell confirmed he would launch a challenge against Dr Sharples and Ms Katene confirmed she wanted Ms Turia’s job.
Maori Party president Pem Bird says Mr Flavell’s challenge will be discussed this afternoon and the party’s constitution will be reviewed to see what now happens.
I said last week that the party’s troubles are symptomatic of deep dysfunction within the parliamentary and party wings. I was too optimistic; the troubles are symptomatic of an anaemic caucus and a debilitated membership.
After shedding two seats and halving the party vote, it became obvious that the formula wasn’t right. The issue for the party appeared to be a matter of ingredients. Was there a leadership problem, a policy problem, a procedural problem or some combination of those factors and others?
As per last week, I think Te Ururoa represents a generational change and a break from the political period that Turia and Sharples embody. However, the party’s problems run deeper than leadership and political symbolism. The party itself, including the party leadership, haven’t figured out where they fit in a fragmented political landscape. A permanent Mana Party, a resurgent Labour Party and a rising Green Party have changed the way Maori politics is played. The Maori Party can either reclaim ground lost on the left, drift in the centre, or acknowledge their role on the right. They cannot maintain the idea that a pan-Maori party is possible. The party must choose a political identity – one that caters to a realistic market. In a post-Marine and Coastal Areas Act world, the party must find its mojo again.
With that in mind, dumping Pita could be problematic. He and Tariana anchor the Maori Party’s support. It would be interpreted as a swipe against Pita’s supporters if he was forced out of the job on Te Ururoa’s terms. Adding Rahui Katene to the recipe isn’t a magic play either. Katene was rejected in 2011 and it's arguable whether or not she appreciates the real issues that the Maori Party faces. The issues are not cosmetic and cannot and will not be resolved with a change in leadership.
As for Hone, well, this is an opportunity squeeze blood from the corpse. The Mana Party is stable, comfortable in its own ideology and untainted by government. The Maori Party is unstable, unsure of its own ideology and tainted by the decisions of government and factional fighting. The choice, if Hone were to draw the dichotomy, is an easy one.
UPDATE: last night the party released a statement saying that Pita will remain at the helm - for now. That's a good move. It's probably not the best look to wash your dirty laundry at Ratana (in front of nearly every political journalist in the country). As we know, though, it's delaying the inevitable hand-over.
Post-script: Pita is increasingly isolated from Tariana, Te Ururoa and some in the wider party. It would be cleaner for him to step down, but after his long service to Maori and the party his supporters argue that that is undignified (and he still retains support in the wider party) . The driving faction is made up of Te Ururoa, Pem Bird (the party president) and their supporters in the Waiariki electorate. Rahui Katene, as far as factional politics goes, is an uncertainty. However, in Parliament she was often associated with Tariana.