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It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that New Zealand is rapidly approaching a crisis point.

There are now two fundamentally different views of our future and there is no way to reconcile them.

On the one hand, we have the view implicit in the Government’s programme: that New Zealand is not a single country with citizens having equal rights irrespective of when they or their ancestors arrived in New Zealand, but rather a country with two classes of citizen. In one class are those who chance to have one or more Maori ancestors, always now with ancestors of other ethnicities, often indeed with those other ethnicities being in the majority. In the other class are all the other New Zealanders. And those with one or more Maori ancestors have, by virtue of that ancestry, inherently superior rights.

It is this view of New Zealand society which explains the Government’s determination to grant Maori tribes half the voting rights in the four Three Waters Entities; the creation of a separate Maori Health Authority; the pressure on local governments to create separate Maori wards; the re-writing of our school History curriculum; the obligation on the Canterbury Regional Council to provide extra seats for the local tribe; the attempt to give Maori in Rotorua disproportionate votes on the local council; and all the rest.

This view has been driven by Maori politicians such as Nanaia Mahuta, Willie Jackson and Kelvin Davis, greatly assisted by the gross ignorance about the Treaty on the part of too many political leaders, notably Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins, both of whom when asked about the Treaty mumbled something about “partnership”.

That ignorance has been fostered by the partisan advocacy of the Waitangi Tribunal which, contrary to the long-agreed interpretation of what happened when the Treaty was signed in 1840, has recently taken to asserting against all the evidence (of the speeches made by the chiefs who signed the Treaty and again subsequently at the Kohimarama conference in 1860) that the Treaty did not involve Maori ceding sovereignty to the Queen.

It’s been fostered also by the writings of some Pakeha historians, such as Claudia Orange. She at least had the good grace to admit in an interview with Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald of 7 February that “the general public is not aware that we are going through huge revolutionary changes in the country and, in fact, we have taken that such a long way there is no going back”.

It is certainly true that turning back will be incredibly difficult. The notion that Maori chiefs did not cede sovereignty in 1840, with all the dangerous implications of that, has become deeply imbedded in the public sector – in our schools and universities, in local government (at least in Local Government New Zealand), in the taxpayer-funded media, and in government departments. In this view, those with Maori ancestors have a fundamentally superior right in the governance of the country. It is a view which is, of course, totally inconsistent with any notion of democracy.

But despite the assertions of what might be called the “anti-democrats” there are still those who believe in a society where every adult citizen has the same political rights. Indeed, I suspect that numerically they are in the substantial majority.

Apirana Ngata, perhaps the greatest Maori leader we have seen since 1840, asserted in 1940 on the centenary of the signing of the Treaty that “Clause 1 of the Treaty handed over the mana and the sovereignty of New Zealand to Queen Victoria and her descendants forever, that is the outstanding fact today. That but for the shield of the sovereignty handed over to Her Majesty and her descendants I doubt whether there would be a free Maori race in New Zealand today.”

David Lange gave a seminal speech in 2000 in which he said “democratic government can accommodate Maori political aspiration in many ways. It can allocate resources in ways which reflect the particular interests of Maori people. It can delegate authority, and allow the exercise of degrees of Maori autonomy. What it cannot do is acknowledge the existence of a separate sovereignty. As soon as it does that, it isn’t a democracy. We can have a democratic form of government or we can have indigenous sovereignty. They can’t coexist and we can’t have them both.”

In his valedictory speech on leaving Parliament in December 2000, Simon Upton said “I must express grave misgivings about those who would attempt to build a constitutional debate around an assertion that the Treaty involves a partnership. Not only is that not what the Treaty says. The idea perpetuates a fiction that we can solve our differences through negotiations between Maori and an abstract entity called the Crown.”

In a major speech in 2002, Bill English asserted that “the Treaty created one sovereignty and so one common citizenship.”

Winston Peters has often ridiculed the notion that Queen Victoria, head of the greatest empire the world had seen to that point, would have been willing to go into partnership with hundreds of mainly illiterate Maori chiefs whom she had not even met.

It would be nice to imagine we can gloss over the chasm between those who believe the Treaty provided for co-governance and those believe in a democratic society where every citizen has equal rights by translating co-governance as “mahi tahi” (working together). We can’t. It is simply not possible to believe that the Treaty created a partnership between those with some Maori ancestry and the rest of us, and simultaneously believe in democracy. The two are fundamentally inconsistent.

In my view, the meaning of the Treaty is very clear: it involved chiefs ceding sovereignty to the Crown, having their property rights protected, and being guaranteed the same rights and responsibilities as the citizens of England. It was an extraordinarily enlightened document for its time – indeed, for any time. Nothing like it happened in Australia, or North America.

And for the most part, we have all behaved as if this is what the Treaty meant – Maori New Zealanders have served in the Army and in the Police, have gone overseas with passports issued by the government of New Zealand, have accepted social security benefits from the New Zealand state, and have voted in general elections for more than 150 years.

If it could be shown that the Treaty did not provide for equal citizenship, we would have to abandon it: there is no future for New Zealand – none at all – if some citizens are accorded superior rights based on their ancestry.

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