Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples has confirmed he is standing down from the role, saying uncertainty over the leadership has taken its toll on the party.
Dr Sharples told a media conference on Tuesday morning that he was announcing his resignation with a heavy heart. He insisted that he had not been pushed and said he had come to the decision of his own volition.
Pita Sharples has been under pressure to bow out since Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell sought to supplant him in the role earlier this year. Dr Sharples told reporters it had become clear that uncertainty over the leadership had been on the minds of supporters.
"It's clear that the leadership issue and the processes around it have taken a toll on the Maori Party and our people, our party people, supporters, deserve a unified Maori Party."
Dr Sharples said the party's showing at the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election on Saturday, in which it dropped to third place behind Mana, was a factor in the decision.
The clear message he had received from people around New Zealand also played a part. He said party supporters have been telling him since Christmas last year that the leadership issue needed to be sorted out.
However, Dr Sharples told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme he stands by comments made earlier this year that he could have stayed in the role until his death, and had hoped that he'd at least have been able to lead the party into the 2014 election.
Dr Sharples said he thought it should have been up to the Maori Party to sort out the leadership issue - but as it didn't, he decided to act. However, he said Maori voters need to realise that to get any gains, they have to work with the Government - not against it.
Pita Sharples will stay on as a minister for the rest of the Parliamentary term, but will hand over some ministerial responsibilities in the months running up to the general election to allow the new co-leader to get some experience. He is Maori Affairs Minister and holds the portfolios of Associate Minister of Corrections and Education.
Te Ururoa Flavell put in a bid for the male co-leadership position earlier this year and the matter was to be decided at the party's AGM in two weeks. Dr Sharples' announcement on Tuesday means it is almost inevitable that Mr Flavell will take over as leader after the hui.
Co-leader Tariana Turia announced last year that she would not stand again in 2014.
Right move, says Key
Prime Minister John Key said on Tuesday that Pita Sharples has made a remarkable contribution to Maoridom, but had made the right move in stepping down.
"I've certainly enjoyed working alongside him and I think he's taught me quite a lot. So we'll miss him, but on the other side of the coin I think he's made the right decision for the Maori Party. It's quite clear that they need to resolve their issues around leadership and, secondly, what's also clear is they're transitioning to a younger leadership."
Mr Key said if Dr Sharples relinquished his ministerial portfolios before the election, National would be comfortable working with Te Ururoa Flavell.
Labour Party leader David Shearer said it is the relationship with National that has been hurting the Maori Party. "I don't believe that the problems with the Maori Party are really about leadership; it's the fact that they're in with National and part of the Government, and Maori just simply haven't been able to see the returns from that."
Earlier, Labour's Maori Affairs spokesperson Shane Jones said Dr Sharples had sowed the seeds of his own downfall when he agreed to support the National-led Government. Mr Jones told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme that Dr Sharples' backing of National was against Maori wishes.
But the Prime Minister said in the past five years the party has made great gains for Maori - far more than it ever could have in Opposition.
Party's finished - elder
A respected Maori elder believes the Maori Party has no future. Peter Love, who lives in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti electorate, said Pita Sharples' comments earlier this year that he would stay leader until his death has left many Maori voters unimpressed.
Mr Love told Checkpoint that, despite Dr Sharples' decision to resign as leader, the party's future is already obvious.
"It hasn't got got a future - it's finished. It's too late, the damage is done. You torpedo the Titanic and it will sink."