Dilemmas that I face on a Saturday Night. Coke or Pepsi to mix? Go home or one last drink? McDonald’s or Hadi Gari? Taxi or walk?
Troublesome as all these are, they pale in comparison to the conundrum that Helen Clark has had on her hands over the past week; the public or her Maori caucus? Beset by falling results in opinion polls, Clark has been forced into what an upbeat National party are calling ‘policy u-turns.’ Taking the foot off the accelerator on Trevor Mallard’s school closing policy is easy; you don’t tread on anyone’s toes in your own caucus and the public are happy that now hopefully they won’t have to send little Timmy on a two hour bus trip to school. But Crown ownership of the foreshore, an end date on treaty grievances and ‘tidying up’ of legislation that mentions the treaty! In changing the tack with regard to race relations policy and in particular the foreshore and seabed issue Clark hits a rather large speed-bump; sure the voters are happy that potentially ‘the beaches are for everyone’ but a Maori caucus who sold the original policy through gritted teeth is livid.
The other problem that the Clark, Michael Cullen and Trevor Mallard tag-team face is that their seeming lack of consultation with their Maori caucus about the potential u-turn just makes them look plain silly. After Orewa the Labour party was quick to scorn the National Party for ignoring their only Maori MP and promoting Gerry Brownlee to the role of Maori Affairs spokesperson, a man who ostensibly seems to be apt for this role in name only. Meanwhile across the other side of the house Labour may have a sizeable Maori caucus, but they aren’t even consulted when a ministerial post is set up to deal with race relations.
Cue the call for a Maori party to be set up. In the past such calls have been the political equivalent of an Elvis sighting: someone gets five minutes of media time, no one is quite sure how seriously to take it and within a week it’s all forgotten. Two things perhaps make it different this time. First the u-turns proposed are serious ones, and secondly, with names like Tariana Turia and John Tamihere being floated, there is not only the name recognition but also the credibility to get the party started. The central problem behind the failure of the last attempt by Tau Henare at the 1999 election was that the public were sick of them after they had split from NZ First and propped up Jenny Shipley for 18 months. These problems don’t plague Tamihere, who has been touted as the most likely leader of any new party. Three questions still have to be asked though. Could any new party make sure that they had a safe electorate to fall back on if they don’t make the 5% threshold? Can they find the moolah to put up a decent campaign? And, finally, can the party get mainstream support and avoid being seen as an ‘extremist Maori group’?