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Peter Wilson: Harawira Forces Maori Party To Make A Hard Call

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Hone Harawira
Hone Harawira

If a white MP had described Maori as "black motherf...kers" he would have been expelled from caucus, whichever party he belonged to, and a tide of revulsion would almost certainly have made it impossible for him to remain in Parliament.

Explanations that he hadn't been referring to all Maori, or that he had been careless with words, would have been considered worthless.

A qualified apology, hedged with justification for holding a grievance, wouldn't have been accepted.

Despite this, the Maori Party doesn't see Hone Harawira's comment that "white motherf...kers have been raping our land" as the primary reason for the action it has taken against him.

He has been asked to leave the party and given two weeks to think about becoming an independent MP.

The reason, say co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, is that he has been acting like an independent anyway. They want to "move on" without the distraction of having a dangerously loose cannon in the caucus.

They don't want to be seen to be punishing Harawira, although his behaviour has been appalling and they admit he has damaged the party.

Turia has received more than 600 emails protesting about Harawira's outburst and Sharples hundreds more.

It provoked a record number of complaints to Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, whose reaction was to say the MP should apologise but had a right to free speech.

Of course Harawira has a right to hold a grievance about land confiscated from Maori, and he has a right to talk about it.

But for a Member of Parliament to make such offensive comment is way beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour.

And that is what this is all about. It isn't about whether Harawira holds a justifiable grievance or the fact that he often uses extravagant language.

If he wasn't an MP he could say whatever he wanted to about whites and unless he broke the law no one would take any notice.

He knows that. During one of his explanations, he said if he hadn't used the words he did use, it wouldn't have rated a mention in the media.

Harawira uses his position, and the media, to get what he wants -- publicity for his extreme views. A previous example was calling John Howard a "racist bastard".

And in the aftermath of his latest racist remark, he was still doing it.

When Labour leader Phil Goff criticised him, Harawira responded by saying he should be "put up against a wall and shot" because it was a Labour government that brought in the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Harawira's actions, past and most recent, have put the Maori Party in a very difficult position.

He has already rejected the request to leave, saying it is the silliest idea he has ever heard.

That leaves the party leaders with two options and they are both bad -- capitulate and let him stay or expel him.

Harawira could choose to offer them a way out by promising to never again discredit the party with racist remarks and agree to come under its control.

Turia, for one, doesn't seem to think that is likely. She told a press conference on Friday she didn't think he was going to change.

Expelling him would cause a serious rift. Harawira is popular in his Te Tai Tokerau electorate and his local committee has given him its full support.

In the wider party he is popular with young Maori and removing him would be seen as evidence that the leadership is no longer prepared to tolerate the kind of firebrand activism he represents.

Sharples, Turia and party president Whatarangi Winiata know this but they are acutely aware of a more important imperative.

The Maori Party has a support agreement with the National-led government and it is making great gains for Maori.

Repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act is almost a certainty and the party is heavily involved in drafting replacement legislation.

A new way of dealing with Maori welfare, championed by Turia, is well on the way of becoming a reality.

In numerous ways, the party has influenced government legislation it felt was unfair to Maori in its original form.

There is a strong bond between Sharples, Turia and Prime Minister John Key. It is based on trust and respect, and that relationship has made it possible for them to overcome problems that had the potential to derail the partnership.

As Sharples pointed out on Friday, that partnership rests on integrity which the Maori Party must sustain.

Having Harawira working on the outside, considering himself accountable only to those he represents in his electorate, works against the relationship.

And although Key tries to shrug it off, the trenchant outbursts which seems to be part of Harawira's reason for being in Parliament has implications for the National Party itself.

It would surely be only a matter of time before a significant section of National's core support, white conservative voters, started asking why the Government needed to deal with such people.

National doesn't have to deal with the Maori Party. It doesn't need its votes to stay in power, that is provided by an agreement with the ACT Party.

Key wanted to broaden his government as much as possible, so he included the Maori Party in a way that forged an unprecedented partnership the prime minister believes is good for the nation.

It is something far more important than one member of the Maori Party caucus.

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