Which hat do I wear today, as the Treaty debate winds on?


A section of the Treaty of Waitangi. PHOTO: ODT FILES
A section of the Treaty of Waitangi. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Major party Māori MPs need to work together to protect the Treaty of Waitangi from extremists, Harry Love writes.

In an earlier opinion piece I put on my Pollyanna hat to suggest that the Maori caucuses of the National and Labour parties talk to each other with a view to formulating a common pathway through the Treaty thicket.

I have now replaced that hat with something more protective, though the thought that lurks beneath it has not changed. It is a serious idea.

It is serious because for years Treaty matters have been left to the courts, insulated from politics by an apparently unspoken agreement between the major parties, both of whom have been generally willing to follow the legal lead. Now, however, the Treaty is a bone of contention, gripped firmly at either end by two un-housetrained political terriers: Act New Zealand and Te Pati Maori.

Much of this is inevitable — such a constitutional entity is intrinsically political and, as its significance and ramifications become more prominent, it becomes more and more difficult to confine it to a courtroom. The need for protective headgear reflects the stridency of opposing views and the risk that these two minor parties will dominate the "debate", reducing it to a shouting match.

Clearly neither has much respect for established political institutions and processes and the possibility that their extremes become the norm, that other political parties passively adopt their unarguable stances, is not a path we want to go down. The fevered infection of the United States Republican Party by its extreme fringes is a stark reminder.

It is in the interests of both National and Labour parties to regain the initiative in the Treaty debate. And it is imperative that the electorate is reminded that there is a debate and not a fait accompli, that arguments about what is fair and what is possible are properly articulated. If we take the debate out of politics it is not politics any more. It gets to resemble something like religion, and we definitely do not want that.

Act’s ultra-liberal vision, as expressed in its Treaty Principles Bill, is a romantic ideal. It appears to presuppose a state of innocence, a simple existence in which individuals are free from the stifling encumbrance of the interests of others.

Te Pati Maori has an equally romantic vision of an ideal state, indigeneity untouched by history. That at least seems to be the premise of He Puapua. Both parties exhibit a degree of religiosity.

A government, however, has to govern in the interests of all, insofar as it can. To do this there needs to be an acceptance of the constitutional foundation that gives it legitimacy. Current conflicts over the Treaty undermine that legitimacy.

Extreme cases admittedly, but we have occasionally seen, on the one hand, the "Sovereign Citizen" who recognises no laws and, on the other, the Maori who refuses to recognise "pakeha rules". Such philosophies should not be enabled to blossom into political movements.

National needs to distance itself from Act in relation to Treaty matters. The Prime Minister has attempted, awkwardly, to do so, but is undermined by David Seymour’s insistence that he does not really mean it and a clandestine campaign to create public pressure to agree to a referendum. Mr Luxon really needs to remind him that he is part of a coalition.

On the other side the Labour Party has to distance itself from Te Pati Maori and to take a hard look at why the last election was lost. There is no one simple cause for the electorate’s displeasure, but for an ex-minister to claim that co-governance, etc, as a contributing factor is a lie put about by National and for Chris Hipkins to claim that all was fine until the other lot "pulled the race card" is wilful blindness.

It will take courage and leadership, but it is in everyone’s interest for Maori MPs to find common ground and to present the Treaty in a way that makes contemporary sense and protects its legitimacy from false idealism.

— Harry Love was the chairman of the Castle St branch of the Labour Party (1987-88) and a New Labour parliamentary candidate for St Kilda in 1990.