17 Oct 2008

National eases stance on Maori seats

10:31 am on 17 October 2008

National Party leader John Key has offered an olive branch to the Maori Party by softening National's position on the future of the Maori seats.

National has previously said it would not compromise its plan to abolish the seats but Mr Key says that policy is not a bottom line position in any post-election coalition negotiations.

Mr Key now says it is too early to say what might happen after the election.

"Any deal we might do would happen after the election. We're not structuring a deal before an election. I don't know what political parties, I mean people are getting ahead of themselves. We may not even do a deal with the Maori Party. We may not do a deal with any other political party.

Mr Key says though of the other political parties he likes the Maori Party, ACT and United Future

Maori Party disagrees

National, however, is still at odds with the Maori Party, which believes National agreed to drop its plan to abolish the seats altogether.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples says he and Mr Key discussed the seats and while it was not a formal agreement, Mr Key gave him an assurance National would abandon the policy.

Mr Key says that is not the case, and the two did not reach an agreement that says the seats would remain until Maori decided they should go.

He says he did tell Dr Sharples National's policy of abolishing the seats would not be a bottom line for it in any post-election negotiations.

Mr Key says his view remains that once Treaty claims are settled, the seats should go.

He says acknowledging the issue is not the same as reaching an agreement.

His comments are in stark contrast to those of the party's previous leader, Don Brash, who insisted the policy was not negotiable.

National has long said it would abolish the Maori seats, and earlier this year set out a timeframe which would see that process start in 2014, after it hopes to have completed Treaty settlements.

Labour call

The Labour Party has now entered the fray, calling on the National Party to come clean.

Labour's deputy leader Michael Cullen says Mr Key needs to clear up the confusion between his public policy on the Maori seats and what he told Dr Sharples in private.

Labour's leader Helen Clark says the situation goes to the core of the issues she has been raising about trust.

Mr Key says he will be happy to debate the issue further with the Maori Party after the election.