Opinion: As the political soothsayers and tea leaf readers make much of the numerous political polls we are being showered with, and what they may mean come October 15, it looks like the ‘c’ word could be right at the forefront in a coalition haggle.

By the ‘c’ word, I don’t mean co-governance or Covid, either. I mean compromise. Or to be compromised, as is the case on more than one occasion.

Compromise has logically been part of the formula of coalition negotiations. No party, especially the smaller parties, can expect to get all they want in a coalition agreement. You can die in a ditch with all your political principles intact and languish on the crossbenches and achieve none of them.

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The reason compromise will be needed is because neither National nor Labour will get there in their own; the 2020 result for Labour was a Covid-driven abnormality.

In 1996 in the country’s first MMP election, most voters took to the new two tick voting system with caution, with little split voting between their electorate and party choices. However, voters on the Māori roll clearly indicated what sort of Government they wanted from this new type of representation.

NZ First made a strong clean sweep of the four of the five Maori electorate seats and Tutekawa Wyllie got there by a margin of just 285 after the counting of special votes. More importantly, Labour won a strong party vote in those Maori seats. No other party reached double digit support.

Maori voters were excited by what this newfangled MMP might achieve. They voted for fresh blood in the Maori electorates and a coalition between Labour and NZ First. There was jaw-dropping shock among Maori, including NZ First’s own Maori MPs, when party supremo Winston Peters entered, eventually, a coalition agreement with Jim Bolger and National. It was an eventful term on many levels.

It got messy. Like the time Te Tai Hauauru MP, Tukoroirangi Morgan, announced that he would cross the floor and vote against his own coalition, if Bill Birch split-up the electricity state-owned enterprise ECNZ without first resolving outstanding claims matters on the Waikato River.

“We were dead men walking the day after Winston announced that coalition.”
– Tutekawa Wyllie

I broke the story on Radio NZ at 11 in the morning. Tuku hadn’t told his party hierarchy what he was going to do. It prompted heated ‘please explain calls’ from the ninth floor to Winston and then to Tau Henare. All were oblivious. By midday Tuku could not be found by the Parliamentary Press Gallery or his parliamentary colleagues.

There was a sighting of him boarding a plane for Hamilton. He remained incommunicado for some time. It didn’t help fraying relationships.

More drama was to come. Later that year Dame Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger and took the big chair in the Beehive. The next year she sacked Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. The coalition fell apart.

Should I stay or should I go?

During this time, there was an awkward period where NZ First’s Māori electorate MPs were deciding whether they would stay with NZ First or leave and stay part of the Government.

Their collective relationship with their party leader had disintegrated. Not helped during this time by a perception that the five Māori Electorate MPs were the only ones not invited to the NZ First fifth birthday party held in Tauranga. Tau Henare, Tuku Morgan and Rana Waitai, along with two other NZ First MPs, left and formed the Mauri Pacific party and supported National through to the election.

Tuariki Delamare and Tutekawa Wyllie stayed. The latter was deeply troubled by what had gone on but stayed because his supporters and the voters had put him there as a NZ First MP. He did say to me during this time: “We were dead men walking the day after Winston announced that coalition.”

It got even odder. Dame Jenny was able to convince former Alliance MP Alamein Kopu to support her government through to the election.

That was some political irony, given Alamein only ended up in Parliament after some gerrymandering of the Alliance list designed to keep Willie Jackson out, as she was seen as more controllable than Willie.

Come the end of that term, there had been principles and MPs compromised aplenty. Māori voters were hoha with all the doings and Tu Wyllie’s earlier comment came to pass. Labour swept the Maori seats back, which had gone from five to six in number. NZ First’s support collapsed.

Foreshore and seabed

Labour and the Alliance took the reins, and the next wave of controversy was just about to wash up on the beach. Well, the foreshore and seabed.

In 2004 it led to the biggest single-issue protest on the steps of Parliament. To say Labour’s Māori MPs felt compromised is an understatement. More than one contemplated leaving.

In the end, Dame Tariana Turia walked. Later the same year the Māori Party was formed.

In 2005, the Māori Party won three of the six Māori electorate seats. Dame Tariana Turia was back sitting opposite her former Labour colleagues. In 2008 the Māori Party won five of the then seven Maori electorate seats and another controversial coalition emerged.

With the vote looking tight, I asked Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira if the Māori Party could work with National. After some thought he said yes, because ‘National, at least, would try to stab you in the face not the back.’

National was able to form a Government with the Act Party’s one seat to have a paper-thin one seat majority. Even though not technically needed, the Māori Party was asked if they would like to join the coalition. It remained party to National-led Governments for three terms.

Most of the credit for that deal being possible sits with Dame Tariana and Sir Bill English. They had a strong relationship from when Sir Bill was Minister of Health in the late 1990s.

They share similar political views on things like decentralisation of services and hand-up not hand out policies. That work from the 1990s was effectively reborn in the Māori Party’s flagship policy, Whānau Ora. Later, Te Ururoa Flavell extracted good gains for Māori housing, albeit through Te Puni Kokiri not Housing NZ.

Ultimately Māori voters were never that comfortable with national as a coalition partner for Māori. That’s a story in itself.

Political huff’n’puff

Jump forward to this year, there is a new generation of Te Pāti Māori (new name too) support. Its two MPs have said they won’t enter a coalition with National. Mind you, Act says it won’t enter a coalition with Te Pāti Māori or NZ First. Then there’s Winston and Labour ruling each other out.

There’s much political huff’n’puff from political leaders on what they won’t do, and not a lot of what they will do in terms of coalitions. Will that lack of compromise consign them to the opposition side of the House?

Its the same with policy. Te Pāti Māori is campaigning on abolishing prisons. As aspirational as that may be, no coalition partner would ever support it as a policy.

If it comes down to parking that to get in to Government and achieve other things on the Treasury benches, what compromise would they consider?

Next Tuesday evening, Whakaata Maori TV starts its coverage of the Māori electorates. I’ll be there to do some analysis and share some observations

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