The Maori Party’s leadership is describing the 2008 election as the best and possibly last chance for Maori people to have a collective impact on Parliamentary politics.

Launching their 2008 election campaign in Hamilton yesterday, co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia said it was an exciting time for Maori in politics as they looked at the prospect of six or seven MPs in the next Parliament.

But Sharples said Maori may not get too many more chances to have their voices heard in Parliament.

He said Maori people had twice looked away from Labour in recent years, to New Zealand First in 1996 and to Alliance partner Mana Motuhake in 1999, and they had twice been failed.

“I think it’s really vital that our people realise that if not this time then over the next three years that this is an opportunity that has to be taken now, otherwise it’s gone,” Sharples said.

“If we don’t build this capacity now, the chance is probably gone forever.”

The Maori Party currently has four MPs, all in Maori seats. It has high hopes of winning all seven this election, and is currently ahead in the polls in six and neck-and-neck in the seventh, Hauraki-Waikato.

Turia said the party also wanted to improve its share of the party vote, which was less than 3 percent at the last election.

“We’ve had a lot of non-Maori contacting our office because they don’t know they can give their party vote to us.

“Our interest is in gaining the party vote from as many people as possible, and that includes everybody who lives here.”

Sharples and party president Whatarangi Winiata said one reason the Maori Party could succeed where NZ First and Mana Motuhake failed was its position of independence.

“The last three years have produced something new: the first Parliamentary session that has witnessed a strong and independent Maori voice day after day,” Prof Winiata said.

He said the party’s voting patterns in the last Parliament showed its independence. The four members had voted 201 times with the Greens and 65 against, 137 times with Labour and 119 against, 77 times with National and 178 against.

Entrenching the Maori seats, which National wants abolished by 2014, remains one of the Maori Party’s key policies.

“We have to make it very clear that those seats belong to us. They do not belong to the mainstream or tauiwi (non-Maori people),” Sharples said.

Turia later said the entrenchment of the Maori seats in Parliament would be a bottom line for her party, and that National would have to abandon its plans to phase the seats out from 2014 if it wanted to work with the Maori Party after the election.

“I think the interesting thing will be if we get into a negotiation with National, and if they agree to entrench: they’ll have to if they want to work with us,” she said.

“Then I think we’ll see where Labour really sits, because if National gets in and then the vote goes into the house and Labour votes against it, that will send the strongest message to our people.”

Sharples said cornerstone Maori issues such as the return of the foreshore and seabed and a greater recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi remained important for the Maori Party in Parliament.

But he said the focus of the next three years might well need to be on helping low income people survive through a worsening economy.

For that reason, the Maori Party wanted to remove GST on essential items such as food and petrol.

“Some people out there say that it’s impractical,” Sharples said.

“But you tell that to our people that are finding it bloody hard to buy a loaf of bread and a block of cheese.”

He said the Maori Party was also keen to make the first $25,000 of personal income tax-free.

“Even for big-scale earners that would be a benefit,” Sharples said.

“But there are a large number of our people who are earning within that $25,000 a year. How the heck can people live off that?”