What was 2010 like for the smaller parties propping up this government? Not a lot of fun, really. Big holes were exposed in ACT, the Maori Party and United Future, which raise even bigger questions
Power exacts a price. Of the three smaller parties with a role in government in 2010, the highest was undoubtedly paid by Rodney Hide and ACT, but the Maori Party too must be weighing up its political balance sheet. United Future is simply hanging on for grim life.
ACT had a high profile last year, but only served to prove that not all publicity is good publicity. It started the year on the back foot, given leader Rodney Hide's indiscriminate use of taxpayers' money in 2009 to travel to London and Hawaii. But with the super city elections due, the three-strikes legislation to be enacted and the chance to nudge National a little further right on regulatory reform, hopes were high early on. But so were internal ructions.
There had been talk of an attempted coup, and then at the ACT conference in March deputy Heather Roy challenged her leader in strategic vision, if not in direct words. The scene was set, finally reaching its climax in August, when John Boscawen rolled Roy was deputy without explanation, leading to that hideous evening press conference, where Roy sat beside her leader looking like an abused spouse.
A month later David Garrett ripped the wound open again, admitting that as a twenty-something he had stolen the identity of a dead child to get a fake passport. Why would anyone do such a thing? For sport, said Garrett. To see if it could be done. It was repugnant to, well, everyone, and while it took Hide a few days to understand that, Garrett eventually paid with his political career.
On this very site, one of the party's founders, Deborah Coddington, wrote that "ACT deserves to die" because it has "no values, no faith, no morals. It is philosophically bankrupt".
Hide, for his part, admitted that the monumental tasks of being both a minister and a party leader had defeated him at times. He and his party got next to no political pay-off for the time and energy given to the Auckland super city set-up, and ACT's idea of radical regulatory reform looks dead in the water this term.
Through all this, ACT's one consolation was that its national polling remained between one and two percent, where it had been for some time. Yet that matter little. ACT's life-support machine is the seat of Epsom. Rumours far and wide suggested ACT's support in the wealthy Auckland seat had plummetted, but somewhat recovered by the end of the year. Those numbers will be crucial as National decides whether to back ACT by running a lame duck candidate – or no-one at all – or whether to take the seat for themselves.
Epsom is National's if ever and whenever the party wants it, but a coalition partner to its right is of immense value and by the end of last year the indication was that National would give Hide every chance to rehabilitate himself and his party.
So ACT ended the year clinging to life, even more firmly in National's pocket, and with only the three strikes law to show for it.
The Maori Party remains a high risk experiment. So far the rewards have been more than symbolic but not ground-breaking: A place for the Maori flag; the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights affirmed; a tangible, if watered-down, commitment to Whanau Ora; endless hui on the foreshore & seabed law change and a willingness by the government to spend a fair chunk of its political capital on the issue.
On the other hand, the compromises have been many, and obvious. Most notably, Maori unemployment is around 14 percent, more than double the national average. The Maori Party is being ignored by National when it comes to the economic advancement of ordinary Maori and was even forced to vote for last year's GST increase via the Budget.
By the end of the year the party was looking tangled in a net of its own making over the foreshore & seabed. Its election promise was for change, yet several iwi had joined Hone Harawira in his criticism of the government's proposed solution. While the leadership is still backing "public domain" and court access, painting it as a win for Maori, fewer of its supporters are buying that line.
The Maori Party's greatest strength (outside the Maori seats themselves) is also its greatest weakness. As an ethnicity-based party it claims to speak for a whole people and its unique kaupapa. In theory, it is a pan-Maori voice.
But it's of course folly to act as if all Maori think and vote alike, so its attempts to speak for all Maori can mean it ends up pissing off many. In hindsight, I think 2010 will be seen as the year when the difference of opinions and political beliefs within Maoridom, amongst iwi, and between business groups and working class individuals began tearing at the fabric of the party. Ultimately, it has to ask how long it can go on trying to represent an entire ethnicity.
Hone Harawira had an impressive year, moving on from his silly travel antics of 2009 and buckling down to the hard yards of parliamentary life. I suspect he commands more sway over public life than any other backbench MP. For me, he was the non-government MP of the year.
Consider these points:
- Harawira's crusade against smoking won a select committee inquiry and, remarkably from National, a tax increase
- He offered more potent and populist criticism of the government than just about any other MP, save Phil Goff
- More and more Maori are coming in behind his opposition, revealed as early as last February, to his own party's foreshore policies
- He has consolidated his power in the Maori north. He now owns Te Tai Tokerau and so is beyond the reach even of his own leaders
- His articulation of Maori anger from inside the House is of immense worth to the country's race relations. He gives those who might otherwise feel disenfranchised and alienated a voice. Frankly, if Harawira didn't exist, we'd want to invent him.
Finally, United Future. Peter Dunne has boxed above his party's weight on tax, being at the heart of the government's key reforms. He has also retained the Families Commission – so far. His power has been significant, given his minimal voter support. And, you might ask, what price has he paid? Of the three minor parties with a place in government, hasn't UF done best?
In fact, if you judge UF by the same standards as the other parties, it comes up short. UF, according to its 2008 manifesto, strongly opposes cutting state sector numbers... it supports "zero fees" at tertiary institutions... it wants KiwiSaver made compulsory... it opposes foreshore and seabed reform... But neither the government nor voters pays any attention to it on these issues.
If voters know anything about the party – and that's questionable – it's probably about tax, and National owns that issue in the public mind. So while Dunne will feel content as a minister looking back on 2010, it's hard to see, from a national perspective at least, that he's done anything to help him fend off Charles Chauvel and Katrina Shanks in Ohariu next year. (He may be working magic at a local level; I've no info on that).
In short, the party happiest with the performance of the minor parties in government this past year will be National. While it would like a slightly stronger ACT and a slightly more malleable Maori Party, the minor three have only made National look more stable and appealing. Despite the turbulence provided by ACT and the Maori Party, and in part because of it, voters have kept faith with this government.
But minor parties live and die on their performance in election year. So if you thought last year was a bit of a roller coaster, just wait a few more months.