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DON BRASH: A PATHETIC ATTEMPT TO JUSTIFY CO-GOVERNANCE

A day or two ago, I read an attempt by a Minister in the present Labour Government to justify “co-governance”, a word now used to mean governance where Maori New Zealanders share, on a 50/50 basis (sometimes with a veto), the governance of public services or natural resources with those without Maori ancestors.


The Minister began by referring to a particular situation near Akaroa where a wastewater treatment plant had to be placed close to and over a cemetery where many Maori had been buried. Agreement had been reached between the local tribe and the authority responsible for treating the waste water, as a result of which the plant is jointly managed by the tribe and the local authority. It’s hard to see why anybody would object to such a deal where both parties got what they needed – the correct location for the plant and suitable recognition of the significance of the land being used.


He then referred to the Treaty of Waitangi which, he rightly claimed, provided an assurance that, in surrendering sovereignty to Queen Victoria, chiefs were to retain ownership of their property. And by property he meant their “Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties”, which is what the official English version of the Treaty refers to in Article II. (Actually, the Maori language version of the Treaty – which is widely regarded as the correct version of the Treaty – makes no reference to forests or fisheries, but simply to “lands, dwellings and all their property”.) But the Treaty also provided that Maori were free to sell their land, and huge tracts of frequently unoccupied land were sold to settlers. The prices at which that land was sold were satisfactory to the vendors at the time, though once the land was developed and farmed by those settlers with hard work, new agricultural techniques and new farm animals, those prices seemed very low.


Some Maori land was confiscated, particularly in the Waikato, as a result of rebellion by Tainui. And that surely was an acceptable and appropriate consequence of rebellion – and certainly in keeping with Maori tradition. Despite that, a significant amount of the confiscated land was later returned to Maori, as the Sim Commission noted in 1927.


Other land was taken unfairly or improperly, and there is near unanimous support across the political spectrum that in cases like that, where land was taken in breach of the law, compensation should be paid, as would be the case where any land was taken by the government without appropriate compensation.


But then the Minister asserts that “the reservation of chiefly authority includes the right to participate in decision making. It was part of the Treaty and therefore we are obliged to ensure this in ensuring that the principles of the Treaty are honoured.” But there is nothing in the Treaty, in English or in the Maori language, which even referred to, let alone guaranteed, the right for the chiefs to participate in decision-making. On the contrary, what was explicit in the Preamble to the Treaty and in Article I was that the chiefs were ceding sovereignty to the Queen “forever”.


The Minister then refers to the fact that “some population groups have much worse outcomes in terms of health, education, income, crime, life expectancy and many many more indicators. We know that Maori are at the bottom of many of these indicators. Given that the Treaty promised the same ‘rights and privileges’ to all we have clearly failed.”


But nobody in 1840, or indeed since, has argued with a straight face that Article III of the Treaty (which did indeed promise “in return for the cession of the Sovereignty to the Queen, the people of New Zealand shall be protected by the Queen of England and the rights and privileges of British subjects will be granted to them”) meant that Maori New Zealanders were to be guaranteed the same life expectancy or the same income as other New Zealanders, irrespective of their smoking or dietary habits – the very idea would have been laughed out of court.


The reality of course is that there are a great many Maori who live as long as other New Zealanders, and that the gap between average Maori life expectancy and average non-Maori life expectancy has closed enormously over the last half century as Maori living standards have improved. The fact that average Maori life expectancy is still somewhat lower than that of other New Zealanders is a reason to discourage smoking and encourage healthy eating habits, not to pretend that the solution lies in creating a separate and superior constitutional status for Maori.


Nobody can, or does, object to Maori holding positions of authority – in central government, local government, or any number of community organisations – and the evidence for that surely lies in the very substantial number of Maori New Zealanders who hold such positions now. But co-governance implies that those identifying as Maori are entitled to a separate and superior constitutional status to that of all other New Zealanders with a 50% representation in the control of taxpayer- or ratepayer-funded assets (such as water infrastructure), and that simply cannot be acceptable in a democracy. Nor is it consistent with any reasonable reading of the Treaty.


Don Brash

31 August 2023

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