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Chris Trotter: Thoughts On Waitangi Day, 2022

The following piece appeared at Chris Trotter's blog, Bowalley Road, and contains references to David Seymour's speech extract, The Kiwi Identity, which BB&H ran on February 3. It is followed by a brief response from the ACT leader.

PERHAPS IT WAS just as well Omicron’s Red Light put paid to this year’s Waitangi celebrations. Too much is moving at speed on the front we used to call “race relations”. An embittered series of polemical exchanges on the Treaty Grounds would not have facilitated the clear and calm thinking so urgently needed on the nature and ultimate purpose of the “Treaty partnership”.

Such decisions as have been made: the new history curriculum, Māori representation in local government, the Māori Health Authority, Three Waters; have only whetted the appetite of an increasingly impatient younger generation of Māori nationalists. Those older activists who see the bi-centenary of the Treaty’s signing in 2040 as the best finishing post for a te Tiriti-based constitutional transformation will likely be disappointed.

Driven by the 15-strong Labour Māori Caucus, which must, itself, keep an eye on the even more unabashed radicalism of the Māori Party. Aided by a mainstream news media determined to make good the historical harms inflicted upon Māori by its deeply prejudicial coverage of New Zealand race relations. The drive towards constitutional transformation has acquired an momentum that cannot now be easily, or painlessly, slowed.

Interviewed by leading Māori journalist Julian Wilcox for the first broadcast of RNZ-National’s new programme, Māpuna, on Saturday (5/2/22) newly appointed Māori Land Court judge, Aidan Warren, warned of the growing impatience evident among rangatahi. It is becoming increasingly difficult for older Māori, Warren observed, to counsel patience successfully. Simply pointing to the rapidly increasing numbers of strategically located Māori professionals is no longer enough. Māori society is experiencing that most frightening of social phenomena, a “revolution of rising expectations”.

Armed with the well-honed arguments of Māori lawyers, historians and political activists, and marching to the beat of their own musicians, young Māori activists are unlikely to wait another 18 years for the construction of a new, te Tiriti-based, Aotearoa to be completed. After 182 years of Pakeha domination, the emerging consensus among young Māori activists seems to be that the time for waiting is over.

What, then, are they likely to make of David Seymour’s “State of the Nation” address of last Friday? (4/2/22) In what some commentators have already described as an updated version of Don Brash’s in/famous “Nationhood” speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, Seymour offers those New Zealanders yet to be persuaded of the need for a te Tiriti-based constitution the following, potentially inflammatory, propositions:

The next Government will not be able to simply stop doing new things that divide New Zealand. We will have to actively push back against the divisive idea that there are two kinds of New Zealanders.

We will need to remove the constant references to the Treaty from the law and replace it with a commitment to liberal democracy. One person, one vote, and equality for all in a multi-ethnic nation state.

It means removing co-governance structures from healthcare, from resource management, infrastructure, and education. It means going through the statute books and removing the distinctions in law that hold my Māori ancestors as legally different from my European ones.

The election of a National-Act government in which the balance of right-wing parliamentary forces made the implementation of these highly contentious policies a non-negotiable element of any coalition agreement would be potentially calamitous. The immovable object of right-wing Pakeha resistance to te Tiriti-based constitutional change would meet the irresistible force of youthful Māori nationalism (with plenty of Pakeha allies in tow). Something, or someone, would have to give up – or in.

It probably wouldn’t be Māori. As AUT’s Ella Henry told Moana Maniapoto in the course of Māori Television’s excellent Waitangi Day programming: when set against an historical backdrop extending back 3,000 years across the Pacific, the 200 years of Aotearoa’s European colonisation is just “one bad day”.

There was a time when those same European colonists spoke piteously about “smoothing the pillow” of the dying Māori race. And yet, the tangata whenua are still here.

Would voters really be willing to test the practicality of Act’s programme to effectively roll back the judicial, institutional, political and (most importantly) the economic and social progress made by Māori over the last 50 years? More to the point, would National? How many New Zealanders, when push came to shove, would be willing to embrace the repressive measures necessary to nullify the inevitable Māori resistance? Is it not more likely that a majority would opt to avert such a potentially tragic course by voting for a less combustible coalition?

But, even if they did, the challenge of te Tiriti-based constitutional transformation remains. Would it not be better for Labour, the Greens, and even National, to grasp the nettle and simply hand over the whole question to a constitutional convention?

Using the recent Chilean constitutional convention as a model, the first stage of the process would be the nationwide election of delegates. Not only would this require the four-fifths of the population who are non-Māori to decide what sort of future they favoured, but it would also require the Māori promoters of a te Tiriti-based constitutional transformation to come out from behind the closed doors where, to date, so much of the detailed discussion of what their new Aotearoa might look like has taken place.

Māori have, quite understandably, been reluctant to state too openly, or with too much detail, exactly what their preferred future would look like. Their preference has been to let their revolution unfold from the top down in a series of fait accomplis impervious to popular challenge from below. To spend the next 18 years very slowly boiling the Pakeha frog.

The consequences of this strategy are already ominously clear in Act’s reactionary propositions. If “co-governance” is perceived in terms of 15 percent of the electorate imposing its will on the other 85 percent, then it’s a non-starter. Which is why, as many of the participants in Moana Maniapoto’s Waitangi Day discussion were at considerable pains to explain, co-governance should be viewed not simply as a means of restoring Māori mana, but also of radically expanding the horizons of all the human-beings who have made Aotearoa their home.

Do Labour and the Greens have the courage to demand that all New Zealanders either put up, or shut up, by voting for or against the constitution eventually presented to the electorate by the Convention? Does National?

The colonial state of our fathers is slowly but surely breaking up. If we are to avoid Antonio Gramsci’s “morbid symptoms” – the product of an old system that is dying while its successor struggles to be born – then all of us will have to find the courage to dream dreams and see visions of an Aotearoa in which both tangata whenua and tauiwi can grow and flourish.

Politics as usual is no longer capable of delivering an Aotearoa worth living in. It is time for a new net to go fishing.

Comment from David Semour:

Chris Trotter’s piece is very insightful. It is certainly true that the transition to a Partnership State is as pervasive as it is radical. That doesn't mean it's irreversible. It means that we need to appreciate the scale of the challenge and respond with a better, more positive future as a modern, multi-racial society. While reversing the momentum of the current movement is near impossible, the alternative is worse. To achieve this reversal I can only reiterate, we must remove constant references to the Treaty from the law and replace them with a colour blind commitment to an outward looking, multi-ethnic, liberal democracy where every child is born with the same bundle of political rights.

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