Hone Harawira thinks the Maori Party needs to dance to his tune. Are his colleagues going to pull the plug on his stereo?
Last Sunday, Hone Harawira penned this opinion piece in the Sunday Star-Times, titled "crunch time for Maori grumbles". It's looking like the piece may well have brought about crunch time for him; or, at least, crunch time for his relationship with his Maori Party colleagues.
You can see why the piece has caused so much friction. Not only does he decry "the anti-worker, anti-beneficiary and anti-environment (and therefore anti-Maori) legislation that comes as a natural consequence of having a right-wing government", he also slams his own colleagues: "because leaders do most of the talking for a party (and control what the rest of their MPs say as well), our public statements over the last couple of years have been rather muted, to say the least."
His list of "suggestions" for the Party in the lead up to the election also contain a few pretty blatant swipes at his own team. They need to "speak out strongly against National's anti-social initiatives." They need to abandon their support for the replacement foreshore and seabed legislation - effectively admitting defeat on this core issue. They need to "most importantly, go back to the people" - because the MPs have become so comfortable in power that they've forgotten who they must answer to.
Oh - and they also need to "stop trying to make us all be the same. When some of us say one thing and others take another view, learn to celebrate the difference rather than try to crush the dissent." In other words, let me do my thing in my own way ... .
Finally, Harawira closes with a threat: "Over the next few months I will be writing articles focusing on issues which will affect Maori in the run-up to the 2011 election, including a more in-depth one on National's Marine and Coastal Areas bill." Not that last bit - he calls the legislation "National's", in spite of his Party trumpeting it as "fulfil[ling] our election promise."
I don't know if Harawira's colleagues knew he was planning on dropping this particular bomb, or were fully aware of what he planned to say in it. Probably not, given that it took them over 2 days to work out how to respond publicly.
If they did know it was coming, you can bet their stern message was "don't you dare write this!" And it is hard to decide what is worse - writing without forewarning your colleagues, or doing so even after being told not to.
So, given all this, it isn't surprising that all four of Harawira's colleagues have officially complained about his column to the Party President, Pem Bird.
Of course, we've been in this sort of territory before. Back at the end of 2009, it looked touch-and-go as to whether Harawira would remain in the Maori Party following his tax-payer funded Paris sojourn and racially-charged reaction to criticism of it. He eventually backed down with an "I'm sorry if you can't handle my truth" apology (nicely parodied by the Southland Times here), with his colleagues also publicly seeking to heal the rift.
So will the present stoush just be 2009 redux, with a bit of posturing followed by a public show of reconciliation? Maybe - but maybe not, too.
For one thing, the issues at stake are much, much greater here. In 2009, it was whether Harawira could control his temper (and temperament) so as to avoid generating the wrong sorts of headlines for the wrong sorts of reasons.
The Sunday Star-Times piece, by contrast, represents an attempt at a full policy coup within the Maori Party. Essentially, Harawira is seeking to develop a political platform that flaxroots party members can clamber aboard, thereby forcing his caucus colleagues to follow.
Or, to put it another way, it's a statement that unless the Maori Party starts doing things the way he thinks they should be done, then he'll wage a guerilla war against it both internally and in the national media. That is, to put it mildly, a recipe for ongoing trouble throughout the entire organisation in a year which may be make-or-break for it as a political force.
For another, the Party hierarchy looks to be really serious about calling Harawira to heel on this occasion. The complaint laid by the MPs is a formal measure required to begin disciplinary procedures that might, in the end, result in Harawira's expulsion from the Party altogether.
Back in 2009, Harawira's position was handled in a much more informal manner. The then-president Professor Whatarangi Winiata and co-leader Pita Sharples attended a hui in Northland and read Harawira the riot act, with the message that he needed to shape-up-or-ship-out.
But they did so in a way that, from a legal standpoint, actually made it almost impossible to take any further action against him. At that hui, Professor Winiata told Harawira he should resign and become an independent MP - a position he publicly restated after the hui finished. By doing so, he handed Harawira a massive advantage in any future disciplinary proceedings.
If the Party began moves towards expelling him, Harawira's lawyer (he reportedly hired Peter Williams QC) would have laid this statement before a court as evidence that the decision already had been made and so Harawira's right to natural justice had been abrogated. The necessity to be seen to be keeping an open mind even when working toward a foregone conclusion is why, for example, Andrew Little was so circumspect about Chris Carter's likely fate when the Labour Party was going through all the steps needed to expel him.
This time around, however, the Party looks to be playing things entirely by the book. They've got Mai Chen to advise them on the proper procedures to follow. The Party President is refusing to speculate on possible outcomes from the complaint, while the MPs who made it have (so far) kept quiet about it.
This suggests to me that the Party is at least contemplating going as far as kicking Harawira out. So what would have to happen before this could occur?
Well, according to the Maori Party Constitution, which serves as the rule book here, disciplinary action can be taken against a member who
"refuses to comply with the Party Constitution; improperly deals with any party funds; or, in any other way wilfully brings the party or its members into public disrepute."
Without having seen the complaint, I assume it is based on the first and/or third grounds. Harawira's quite abrasive comments about his colleagues' actions certainly look to be in tension with the Party's commitment to Manaakitanga and Kotahitanga, while the bad press his attacks on its policies (as well as its relationship with National) may well bring it into public disrepute.
OK - so there's a complaint that he's broken the Party's rules of behaviour. Who then judges that complaint, and what happens as a result? According to the Constitution, the complaint first goes to the Party's Te Tai Tokerau Council. But given Harawira's popularity in the electorate, you can assume it will side with him on the issue - just as it did in 2009.
Consequently, as the local electorate council looks unlikely to "resolve" the matter - whatever this means - it will proceed to the Party's Disciplinary and Disputes Committee to "resolve on the basis of the kaupapa of the Party." Again, just what this means in practice is not specified, nor are any sorts of disciplinary powers expressly set out in the Constitution.
Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that the Committee could decide to expel Harawira, on the basis that he's failed to abide by the conditions of membership set out in the Constitution. This requires that members:
"work to support the Māori Party kaupapa and tikanga; act within the Māori Party constitution; [and] abide by lawful decisions made in accordance with the Māori Party constitution ...."
If Harawira is adjudged to have acted inconsistently with these conditions, then his right to remain a party member is forfeit.
But I've got to say, there's a lot of wiggle room in all of this. For one thing, the description of the process for taking disciplinary decision is pretty rudimentary, which invites argument about how those gaps should be filled. For another, Harawira can argue pretty strongly that he's actually speaking out in support of the party constitution. Consider these elements within it:
"[The Party will] develop a parliamentary team that will take advice and guidance from Māori in the first instance;"
"[The Party will] promote a fair and just society, to work for the elimination of poverty and injustice, and to create an environment where the care and welfare of one's neighbour is still important."
"[The Party will] ensure that the conduct and activities of the parliamentary team, leaders and the organisation as a whole are reflective of the attributes of rangatira."
Isn't there a pretty strong case that Harawira's opinion piece is simply calling his colleagues back to the core values that the party constitution enshrines, and that it is they that have acted in ways that are inconsistent with it?
Of course, I'm immediately looking toward the legal ramifications of the complaint against Harawira. (But then, I am a lawyer of sorts, so cut me some slack.) For the moment at least, the matter primarily is a political one - you could even say it's a struggle for the Maori Party's mauri. And so it may yet be resolved through the political channels of debate, compromise and conciliation.
But these legal matters do still matter. Because whether, as a matter of law, the Maori Party can or cannot kick Harawira out of the wharenui helps determine who holds the ultimate card in the political debates to come. And while compromise is the art of politics, holding the ultimate card helps decide on whose terms the compromise takes place.