Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Maoris relishing their new-found importance

ON EDGE With last week's election ending in deadlock, the Maori Party is fiercely determined to use its vital seats to counter recent anti-minority legislation


New Zealand, to most outsiders a beautiful South Pacific paradise, is a troubled nation, deeply divided on racial lines more than 160 years after Europeans first arrived to colonize the native Maoris.

Saturday's deadlocked general election brought this into sharp focus, and whichever group of politicians eventually cobbles together a new government must make healing the racial divide a priority, or risk the consequences.

There are no race riots or any sign of them, but the emergence of a powerful new Maori political force with potential to make or break a government, has made their voice louder than ever before.

How the Maori Party wields its power is in the hands of a 61-year-old grandmother, Tariana Turia, and Pita Sharples, 63, a portly doctor of anthropology who has eight grandchildren of his own.

They are joint leaders of the party, which Turia formed only 15 months ago after quitting the Labour government in protest at a policy making all beaches public property, which she dubbed a modern day land confiscation.

They went on to win four of the seven seats in parliament exclusively reserved for Maori voters, seats Labour traditionally monopolized.

It may not be a big force in the 122-member parliament, but it rocked Labour and with only one seat separating it and the National Party, the Maori quartet is poised to influence the new government.

Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark remains peeved at Turia's departure and questioned before the election about possible coalition partners, she sneered that the Maori Party would be "the last cab off the rank" she would want to talk to.

"Well, the cab has been sold and we now drive a limousine," said Sharples this week, as Clark requested talks about forming a new administration.

A deal is unlikely with the Nationals, who campaigned on abolishing the Maori seats and stripping them of all preferential treatment in pursuit of a "one law for all" policy.

"They are trying to turn us into white folk," sniffed Turia, but she and Sharples took time to meet Nationals leader Don Brash this week to remind Clark and Labour that they should not be taken for granted.

Brash's promises to end "separatism", do away with all privileges for Maoris, "review" all ethnically-based government departments and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi partnership the British signed with Maori chiefs, struck a chord with whites who boosted his party's popularity in opinion polls.

This scared Labour into a wide-ranging policy review and promise to target all future health and welfare spending on the basis of need, not race, to stop white voter flight to the Nationals.

More than a quarter of all Maoris aged 18-64 are on welfare benefits and their leaders, who had been urging Labour to devolve more of the budget to tribes, saying they would spend it more efficiently to improve their health and living standards than mainstream departments, were incensed.

And when Labour declared the country's 18,000 km foreshore and seabed public property accessible to all, it was the last straw for Turia who claimed that Maoris traditional land rights were being confiscated.

Long an activist for her people, she helped lead a 79-day occupation of a public park claimed as Maori land in 1995 before entering parliament. She enraged Clark in 2000 by saying colonization of New Zealand had a similar effect on her people as the Holocaust on the Jews.

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