John Armstrong: Any Labour celebrations over Maori Party's exit from Parliament will be muted

Talk about guilt-tripping someone something awful.

First time candidate Tamati Coffey has won the electorate of Waiariki for Labour, beating out Te Ururoa Flavell. Source: 1 NEWS

Tamati Coffey does not deserve to be tagged as the politician who "killed" the Maori Party.

Sure, the former broadcaster was the Labour candidate who by defeating Te Ururoa Flavell in the latter's Waiariki wrenched the Maori Party's hands off the sole Maori seat remaining in its grasp.

In doing so, Coffey removed the minor party's last lifeline to Parliament, thus bringing the Maori Party's 13-year stint in the corridors of power to an end.

And isn't Labour grateful for that. Any celebrations will be muted, however. And not solely because the major Opposition party is now focused on little else but ensuring it is not going to be the major Opposition party for yet another three years.

Given the dignified and humble manner that Flavell displayed in announcing his retirement from politics following Saturday's election, dancing a jig on the Maori Party's coffin would be grotesque, however tempting.

As the Maori Party co-leader arrived to give his speech, supporters broke out in a haka. Source: 1 NEWS

Moreover, while the Maori Party has spent the past nine years camped alongside National, there is considerable respect for Flavell and company on the left of the political spectrum. 

Many voters who leaned Labour's way last Saturday would have preferred that the Maori Party had survived as a force in Parliament even though the force that a party with just one or two MPs can exert on a ruling party with close to 60 MPs is minimal to say the least.

Flavell's loss of his seat surprised many. It should not have done so. There were indications the Maori Party's co-leader was in danger of defeat long before Jacinda Ardern's elevation to the leadership of Labour which saw a red tide sweep all before it.

The leaked findings of a poll conducted by Labour shortly before that game-changer had Flavell on 31.6 per cent with Coffey breathing down his neck on 30.1 per cent.

Labour MP Tamati Coffey faces the media on his first day at Parliament after being elected in the Waiariki electorate. Source: 1 NEWS

Things became very confused, however, after a Maori Television poll taken in the seat just two weeks prior to Election Day suggested there might be a good deal of strategic voting in Waiariki with Flavell cruising to a very easy victory in the electorate race, while Labour would enjoy a healthy boost in its share of the party vote.

It was not to be. Coffey picked up around 53 per cent of the electorate vote, leaving Flavell trailing on 45 per cent.

Suddenly, it was Groundhog Day. The Maori Party had joined a long list of other "independent Maori voices" - MANA, Mana Motuhake, Mauri Pacific and New Zealand First's "tight five" - swept aside by Maori voters rushing back to Labour.

Smarting from her ejection from Parliament, Marama Fox, the Maori Party's other co-leader, likened the return en masse to the Labour "mothership" as akin to that of "a beaten wife to the abuser who has abused our people over and over again".

Her outburst failed to answer the two big questions arising from Flavell's defeat: why did the Maori Party end up joining the above list, and, why does history keep repeating itself?

The story of MMP politics in New Zealand is a story of the massacre of minor parties. In the five general elections fought by the Maori Party, its share of the party vote has never got close to even a measly 3 per cent. On its debut in 2005, the party captured four of the Maori seats. That number had fallen to just one seat after the 2014 election. 

The obvious crisis did not result in any change in the party's strategy which was built on the notion that you can only achieve things by being party to government even if that flouts the principles upon which your party is constructed.

That is arguable. What cannot be questioned is that the Maori Party suffered major collateral damage in the last parliamentary term from National's slow and half-hearted response to skyrocketing poverty numbers and the public's perception of an ever widening chasm between rich and poor.

It goes without saying that Maori dominate the rough end of statistics measuring the levels of social deprivation and homelessness. Contrary to Fox's assertion, the flood of votes back to Labour was the height of rationality.

Something else was also very different. The Maori Party had enjoyed the good fortune of fighting four of the aforesaid five elections when its enemy was in a shambolic condition.

That was not going to last forever. From the instant Ardern took control, the heavyweight Labour machine started fighting its foes rather than itself.  

Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell said voting for Maori Labour candidates was a pointless exercise because they’ll now likely be in opposition. Source: Q+A

Flavell was history. Even an electoral pact with Hone Harawira which saw the latter's MANA party not stand a candidate in Waiariki in order to avoid splitting the anti-Labour vote proved to be hopelessly ineffective in blocking Coffey's march to victory.

There may be other, less obvious reasons why Maori voters deserted to Labour in such high numbers.

That is partly down to their being little in the way of alternatives. National does not stand candidates in the Maori seats. New Zealand First's wish to abolish them is hardly an incentive to vote for that party.

Or is it? Labour's near monopoly on the Maori seats over the past seven decades or so has had the effect of limiting Maori political power.

Or so argued the royal commission which recommended the change in the electoral system to MMP.

It wanted the Maori seats to be axed. It saw them as a political ghetto fenced off from the rest of the political system. 

In return for their removal, the 5 per cent threshold would have been waived for parties "primarily" representing Maori interests. 

All voters would have been on one single roll thus forcing all parties to compete for the Maori vote and develop policies accordingly.

Such thinking would be anathema to the likes of Dame Tariana Turia who argues that mainstream parties do nothing for Maori and that Maori need to be in control of their destiny.

When the means to that end can barely muster 1 per cent of the vote and is slaughtered in every one of the seven seats which it has some expectations of winning, it is time to pause for some very serious thought about finding an escape route from that predicament.