There are times when the Government needs the ACT Party like a hole in the head, and last week was one of them.
The legislation that is going to replace the Foreshore and Seabed Act, called the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, had been going along reasonably smoothly.
Compared with the uproar that surrounded the introduction of the Act, the bill wasn't attracting much opposition. It had passed its first reading and Parliament's Maori affairs select committee was quietly getting on with preparations for public hearings.
ACT decided to end this relative tranquility by demanding a change to the bill.
It said there was no explicit provision in it which would prevent iwi who had gained customary title to a beach from charging people for using it.
Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, who is in charge of the bill, insisted that charging wasn't possible. But he couldn't persuade ACT of this.
Party leader Rodney Hide and new MP Hilary Calvert went on the offensive in Parliament and Finlayson agreed to make it "absolutely clear" there could be no charging by making a minor amendment to the bill when it comes up for its committee stage.
If ACT had kept quiet at this point, subsequent problems might not have arisen.
But it didn't. It issued a press statement claiming to have achieved "a stunning success" by gaining Finlayson's agreement to change the bill.
This enraged the Maori Party. Co-leader Pita Sharples had already complained that a specific provision to prevent charging was an insult to iwi because, he said, there had never been any intention to charge for access to beaches.
Changing the bill, he said, was entirely unnecessary.
Then Hone Harawira entered the controversy, making Sharples' complaints appear moderate.
Describing Hide as "a fat little redneck", he angrily denounced the Government for giving way to ACT's demands and said the Maori Party shouldn't vote for the bill during its passage through Parliament.
Why, Harawira asked, did the Government refuse to agree to the Maori Party's insistence that there should be special Maori seats on the new Auckland City Council and then submit to ACT's demands for the Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill to be changed?
Harawira, who isn't voting for the bill himself because he believes Maori have the right to title without having to negotiate it, is claiming widespread discontent among iwi about the test for claims, which is uninterrupted occupation and use since 1840.
This discontent isn't obvious, but the Maori Party co-leaders reaction indicates that all is not well.
Tariana Turia, who quit Labour and formed the Maori Party over the Foreshore and Seabed Act, said the party wasn't guaranteeing its continued support for the replacement legislation and would listen to the opinions of its supporters.
This was a significant change to the circumstances surrounding the bill.
The Maori Party agreed to it through a deal struck with the Government earlier this year, and the legislation is the result of that deal.
It took a crisis meeting between Prime Minister John Key, the Maori Party and iwi leaders to nail it down. The Government's position then was that if the Maori Party didn't agree to what was on offer, the status quo would remain - the Foreshore and Seabed Act would stay in place.
That is still the Government's position. Harawira's comment that it could pass the bill even if the Maori Party voted against it doesn't apply.
It is extremely unlikely that the Maori Party will withdraw its support, whatever happens between now and the next vote on it which isn't going to happen until next year.
The bill contains the very thing that the Maori Party was formed to achieve - repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. It also reinstates the right of Maori to claim customary title, which the Act removed by putting all of it into Crown ownership.
The Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill is without doubt a much better deal for Maori, and the Government drafted it knowing that it could cause problems within its own support base.
ACT's demands raised an emotive issue which hadn't previously been a problem. It says it has every right to do so because it protecting the fundamental right of Kiwis to go to beaches without anyone trying to charge them.
The next stage of the legislative process for the bill has become critical.
From November 23 to December 9, the Maori affairs select committee will hold public hearings in Parliament, Blenheim, Christchurch, Whangarei, Hamilton, Waiariki and Auckland.
Most submitters, probably nearly all of them, will be iwi. If they voice strong opposition to the bill then the Maori Party, having said it will pay attention to the views of its supporters, will be in a difficult position.
It is bound to support the bill because that is what it agreed to do, and it risks becoming increasingly isolated from its supporters if widespread opposition to it, fired up by Harawira, reaches the surface in the public hearings.
Through its support agreement with the Government, the Maori Party has made a lot more gains than losses since the last election. It has no intention of withdrawing from that agreement, but if the foreshore and seabed issues becomes a crisis the relationship will be severely strained.
source: newshub archive