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BARRIE SAUNDERS: Exiting the constitutional rabbit hole

Very well-intentioned politicians, judges and others have taken NZ down into a Treaty rabbit hole, from which few know how to exit, without creating more social divisions. The modern interpretations of the Maori version of Treaty have set aside a common understanding of a few decades ago, and there is now heaps of anxiety and aggravation.


We face the reality that some iwi leaders, academics and others, think the Treaty created a “partnership” between the Crown and Maori leaders, and they should have equal say in the governance of the country, even though the terms “partnership” was not in any version. Furthermore, the textual ambiguities in the Treaty have led to Parliament legislating for recognition of the “principles” of the Treaty for which it has not provided any definition. There is an amazing amount of literature for such a short Treaty, which in itself shows up its practical limitations. To some it appears we have infinitely flexible avenues for iwi to ask for more.


All this makes this year's election the most important of my lifetime. It’s about whether NZ remains a quality democracy or slides deeper into the rabbit hole, with iwi given more say in key regulatory matters such as Three Waters and the RMA. Often forgotten in the debate is the reality iwi are cultural and commercial entities. Any commercial entity given special regulatory status over others will corrupt the decision-making process and that will not end well.


I note that former PM Jim Bolger and his Treaty Minister Douglas Graham recently expressed concerns about the direction of travel. Probably missed by most Kiwis, was former Treaty Minister Chris Finlayson’s article in The Listener of February 18, 2023. The article explained how he viewed Treaty settlements and other policies that affect Maori:


“Christopher Luxon was correct to point out at Ratana that we do not need any more Wellington based bureaucracies like the Maori Health Authority. He committed to providing its money directly to iwi to fund services on the ground. This is excellent and hopefully a sign of more to come…. Hipkins accused Luxon of stoking fear (an accusation reported uncritically by most of the media) and told him to reflect on his behaviour. In contrast to Luxon, Hipkins provided no detail about his views on co-governance, and wasn’t even asked to provide any. How depressingly predictable…. Unfortunately, Waitangi Day this year proved yet again that many in the political class and media are simply unable to engage on these matters rationally.”


Chris Finlayson obviously has some concerns about the judiciary, because later in the article he mentioned his Marine and Coastal Area Act and said, “its tests are being routinely ignored by the courts, but that is an issue for another day”.


Transparency International presently rates NZ highly, but that will change in the event we move to opaque regulatory decision making, with iwi having a special role, while also engaging in increasingly significant commercial operations. In theory this could be dealt with by separating out the roles of individuals, but we need to remember “conflicts of interest” is a Western concept.


Most countries are corrupt. A key characteristic of them is that crony capitalists and elites do very well and the average person does not. We must avoid that outcome.


The area I think should have more attention is socio economic differences between different ethnicities, and in particular Maori, who sit below average in many social indicators, excluding imprisonment where they are rather high. Some conflate this with the Treaty which is a distraction from the reality that not all poor people are Maori and not all Maori are poor. The growth in the Maori professional middle-class has been dramatic over recent decades. Pacific Islanders and many others also figure in the class of those struggling to live the way most of us do.


We have major issues with education, housing and health. The falling standards and school attendance levels, will, if not corrected, see NZ fall further down the international achievement ladders. We have been on four extended visits to South America including our favourite Argentina. Argentina once had New Zealand's level of living standards but is now well down in rankings thanks to poor quality Governments over many decades. An Argentine guide told me poor government “is a South American disease.” There is no reason why NZ cannot continue falling down all the indicator ratings such as GDP per head and education etc.


This will happen while we continue to be preoccupied with how to divide the cake and constitutional arrangements, instead of building a better economy and creating education, housing and health services that ensure everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Just look at the record of countries that frequently change their constitutions.


Is there are way out of social division and decline? While many may not like it, the centre right parties seem to have latched onto it, but their message has yet to get through, in part because most of our mainstream media is left wing and preoccupied with perceptions rather than substance.


The concept of iwi (and other groups) delivering social services such as education, health and housing, through their own agencies is consistent with both the Treaty and good policy, One size does not fit all. The Covid experience showed up the limitations of one central government agency trying to do it all.


There is only one caveat I make to the above. It is critical there be full transparency and accountability. We cannot have taxpayer money going to decision-makers who are also providers. Those allocating money must be more than a good arm's length from the providers of the services. This should not be too hard, but it will require resolute decision makers, able to withstand the barbs they are “racist” or “colonial”.


The question is, can we Kiwis have an intelligent discussion about these issues? So far I am not encouraged. On one of my posts on Facebook about democracy or partnership, I was described as a “fossil” albeit “friendly”. Others were harsher, which is why most Kiwis interested in this, decline to participate lest their lack of knowledge will result in them being deemed racist or ignorant.


Our failure to teach NZ history over the last 70 years was unfortunate and contributes to much ill-informed and bad-tempered commentary. However, it seems the deficient version of history now coming will likely damage race relations and/or create undue anxiety. We need a government that deals better with these challenges.


The mass media could contribute greatly to a civilised debate about these issues, but with the partial exception of the NZ Herald I don’t know one that does. Time to up your game media. Maybe start with Finlayson’s article in The Listener.



About Barrie Saunders: For 25 years I was a Government Relations consultant retiring from Saunders Unsworth in 2015. Earlier work included journalism in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, public relations roles in Parliament, manufacturing and the meat industry – also in the late 1980s the North American Director of the NZ Meat Producers Board based in New York. I was President of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce 2000-2002 and was Chairman of the NZ Taxpayers Union from 2018 until March 2021.


Barrie Saunders blogs here

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