Facing 2014 then, the Maori party has found itself faced with some stark strategic choices to make regarding its electoral future.
At its conference, it decided to defer the motion to initiate a leadership transition for Te Ururoa Flavell. This keeps its two experienced co-Leaders occupying both their positions and their winnable electorate seats for the foreseeable future, and capitalizes upon strong pre-existing electoral and representational records for both these MPs and seats. It also keeps the leadership option open for future use if a successful challenge of Sharples by Shane Jones in Tamaki Makaurau looks likely (as was nearly the case in 2011, with Jones only behind by 936 votes); or alternatively if Flavell needs a profile boost in the event of a close race for Waiariki (which, despite his appreciable margin of 1,883 votes over MANA President Annette Sykes in 2011, is possible).
Interestingly, the Maori party also expressed a desire to appeal to more non-Maori voters and supporters or even stand non-Maori candidates; which, while perhaps somewhat at odds with the party's earlier emphasis upon being a party of Maori speaking for Maori, is nevertheless a logical reaction to the increased difficulty the party is clearly faced with in pursuing its existing strategy of focusing more exclusively on attracting Maori supporters or the Maori vote. In essence, the Maori party has seen the comfortable political nieche it had previously occupied become altogether less hospitable with the addition of a direct competitor who has seized and demarcated out a swathe of it for his own. This has led to a corresponding increase in the effort which the Maori party must invest in competing with its close rivals for votes and supporters in its traditional constituencies, which has no doubt encouraged the Maori party to consider how it can appeal to electors outside these hotly contested battlegrounds as a source of members and electoral support.
One obvious way it could do this is by seeking to capitalize upon the well-developed perception that National will struggle to find "stable" coalition partners with whom they are both reasonably ideologically compatible and whose likely future Caucus composition will need more than a phonebox (or coffin) sized space to meet in.
The Maori party's strong record in governance of policy delivery and good faith partnership and negotiation - and, indeed, their strong emphasis upon being a "partner" in government - allows them to market themselves as an effective centrist party and a coalition partner for National with long-term viability. While it may be some time before we see tactical voting for the Maori party by National supporters, this role as both a prominent centrist voice and a dependable coalition partner may yet provide additional electoral appeal as they seek an increased party vote. The ideological (or at least rhetorical) heritage of the party's Caucus may also potentially allow it to work with Labour in a post-election situation, giving a party vote for the Maori party an added dimension of utility for non-Maori voters seeking an alternative centrist electoral option.
The ability and willingness of the party to brand itself as a centrist electoral option was shown by Turia's recent choice to characterize the focus of the party as being upon "housing, employment, education and whanau ora". This list of three broad-appeal goals and one prominent legacy item may serve to convey a centrist appeal with a Maori flavour rather than a Maori appeal with a centrist flavour. This de-emphasis of Maori isssues allows an avoidance of conflict with MANA in areas of shared appeal, while the focus on both the legacy item and gains in deliverable policy areas allow the Maori party to compete with rival parties from the Opposition in ways that emphasise their point of difference as a governmental 'insider' party.
The shift from goals more obviously identifiable as Maori in appeal (for example, securing recognition for the Tino Rangatiratanga flag) to those which, while they might have more importance for Maori are nevertheless of general appeal (such as improvements in "housing, employment [and] education") also plays strongly into its drive to diversify its support base and electoral prospects by recasting its role as delivering outcomes applicable to if not all New Zealanders, then at least more of them. And, if the Maori party is serious about pursuing a broader appeal and attracting voters and activists from outside of its traditional constituency, promulgating goals they can also identify with and have a stake in is important.
The Maori party's putting such a prospective focus on marketing itself in these areas can also be seen as a response to the challenges the party is facing in fostering and retaining voters and members (the number of which has reportedly slumped to 600), activists and candidates through its existing focus on the Maori electorate and electors. While this declining trend may well already have been in evidence prior to 2011, the emergence of the MANA party has exacerbated it; and, due to MANA's strong competition for these same core electors and activists, made it much harder to reverse.
The existence of MANA has also tightened the contests for both the Maori Seats and broader Maori electorate and thus worsened the situation of diminishing marginal returns which any party (particularly the presently dominant incumbent) faces in terms of having to put in ever-increasing effort for uncertain and limited electoral (indeed, somewhat 'all-or-nothing') returns. I would be honestly surprised if the Maori Party increased their share of the Maori Seats from 3 to 4 or more at the next election. Instead, they could conceivably lose one or more seats to either MANA or the Labour Party. Their ability to rely on a strong return in the Maori Seats to ensure the party's parliamentary presence remains viable and grows is thus curtailed, which leads to their understandable renewed emphasis on campaigning for the party vote in both the broader and Maori electorates.
Given the strong challenges the party now faces in appealing to its traditional constituency which looks set to contribute to a relatively stagnant or declining electoral return from the party's Maori constituency, and the consequent expanding utility of both a party vote campaign and appealing outside that constituency, the rhetoric emerging from this year's Maori party conference over these issues is entirely unsurprising.
The Maori party does not necessarily face immediate extinction; and, with its decision to continue on with its existing leadership team, it can probably be assured at least a presence in Parliament after the next election.
However, its attempts to be the 'elder statesman' of Maori politics are finding themselves undercut by the youthful vigour of the MANA party and reasonable challenges from experienced Labour campaigners.
It may well have sat down, engaged in a rational decision-making process and come to the conclusion that its prospects for attracting support or a future from a vision and focus directed more exclusively toward Maori are becoming somewhat stagnant, and that the best thing to do going forward is to parlay the party's existing prominence as a strong and stable centrist coalition partner whose Caucus have reasonable profile and respect into a broader electoral appeal.
If it is serious about this effort, it will face an additional issue in the form of heightened questions about the nature of its character, values, identity and legitimacy; particularly given the previous adverse consequences of its earlier transition of identity from 'outsider' protest party to 'insider' member of the governing establishment.
While its supporters will no doubt be reassured that the party has decided to rebuff speculation that it might drop the word "Maori" from the name, will the Maori Party one day be Maori in name only?