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Saturday, 21 Jul 2007

Seabed forces Key to stumble

The Dominion Post | Friday, 20 July 2007
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National leader John Key has had a dream run since he assumed the mantle on the abrupt resignation of Don Brash late last year. He has forged a working partnership with his erstwhile rival, jettisoned much of his predecessor's ideology and contrived to charm his way out of most traps, writes The Dominion Post.

It is this latter ability that so gnaws at Labour; its MPs are itching to see him stumble.

He did, in fact, this week, not in a way the Government can capitalise on but in a way that hints at a hitherto rare failure of leadership.

In February, despite knowing National needs political bedmates should it win a majority at next year's election, Mr Key told the Maori Party that National would not back its bid to have the Foreshore and Seabed Act repealed. He and his caucus evidently believe they cannot afford to antagonise their party's conservative voting base by helping overturn the act, which was the catalyst for the Maori Party's formation.

Were there any doubt beforehand about who owned the seabed and the shoreline that meets it, none exists now. Prime Minister Helen Clark moved swiftly to put that real estate in Crown hands.

National probably hoped that its New Year statement would end the matter till next year's election campaign. But Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia has been lucky - while member's bills can languish for months, her bill to have the law rolled back has been drawn from the parliamentary ballot. That means it will have at least one debate - next week - before it is voted down and filed away till a more amenable Parliament exists.

The bill's unexpected appearance has forced Mr Key to publicly repeat that National will not back the Maori Party's bill even as far as a select committee. That decision is a political misstep on several grounds.

First, National needs friends if it is to lead a new government next year. Though some see it as improbable, the Maori Party is among those. It, too, has few political intimates.

Second, National used to be a party that stood for individual rights, responsibilities and freedoms. It believed, too, in the legal process, which directs aggrieved parties to the courts.

Third, under Jim Bolger's leadership, National came to accept Maori had genuine cause for complaint about the way British settlers treated their ancestors. Treaty Negotiations Minister Doug Graham, Mr Bolger and several Maori leaders helped several tribes move toward economic security. History will treat both politicians kindly, even if Maori voters did not.

On each count, however, National fails this time. It is a shame Mr Key cannot show the courage of his predecessors. At the very least, National could back Mrs Turia's bill to the select committee stage, arguing - rightly - that the process that saw a High Court decision to allow Maori to legally test their claims to ownership blocked by legislation promoted by a rattled prime minister, was flawed.

If National still believes in property rights and the rule of law, that is what it ought to do.

Disappointingly, however, Mr Key and his troops have opted for pragmatism over principle and a belief that their decision will not damage post-election relations with Mrs Turia and her co-leader, Pita Sharples. Given National has been in opposition so long, its MPs - perhaps understandably - wish to do nothing that imperils success. But their decision on the Turia bill says much about leadership, or the lack of it.

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