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DON BRASH: What kind of country do we want to be?



As we look into the New Year, there are a lot of crucial issues facing the country – how do we deal with the ongoing unaffordability of housing (notwithstanding the recent fall in house prices); how do we increase our rate of productivity growth so that we can afford the good things of life that wealthier countries take for granted; how do we improve the serious problems in our education and health sectors; how do we deal with the longer-term fiscal crisis caused by our ageing population.


But of all the problems we face, perhaps none is as important as this: do we want to continue to be one of the few democracies in the world where every citizen has equal political weight, or do we want to become a society where political influence is determined by who our ancestors were?


Put another way, what did the Treaty of Waitangi really say, whether in the Maori language or in English?


Increasingly, perhaps since the late 1980s when the Court of Appeal referred to the Treaty as creating something akin to a partnership, the Treaty is being understood to mean that those with a Maori ancestor have some kind of preferential constitutional status.


In early 2021, the current Government was forced to acknowledge that they had commissioned a report in 2019 on how the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) should be implemented. That report, He Puapua, envisaged the New Zealand state being essentially divided into two by 2040 (the bi-centenary of the signing of the Treaty in 1840), with different health systems, different legal systems, different education systems, even different Parliaments, one for those with some Maori ancestry and the other for the rest of us.


“Not Government policy”, the Prime Minister insisted, but continued on an aggressive programme to make that segregated society a reality: the division of the taxpayer-funded health system on racial grounds; strong pressure on local government to create Maori wards; handing effective control of the country’s entire water infrastructure to Maori; mandating the appointment of unelected Maori to the Canterbury Regional Council; making it easier for those with a Maori ancestor to switch to the Maori electoral roll; and more.


And this commitment to creating two kinds of New Zealander – those with a Maori ancestor and those without – has recently infected the entire public sector – our schools and universities, the public service, the Reserve Bank, state-owned media (RNZ and TVNZ).


A few months ago, there was a petition signed by thousands of university academics demanding that seven Auckland University professors who had dared to cast doubt on whether matauranga Maori was equivalent to science be disciplined.


Not long ago, the Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank gave a speech entitled “The Future is Maori”.


The mainstream media has been offered substantial financial support on condition that the recipients of that largesse sign up to the Government’s view of the Treaty, that it created two kinds of New Zealander in partnership.


I’m told that a few weeks ago somebody who hoped to migrate to New Zealand from Ireland was told by Immigration New Zealand to submit a 1000-word essay on the Treaty as part of his application.


The Resource Management Act has long required local councils to consult with Maori before they make planning decisions, and that requirement has been progressively strengthened to the point where Maori tribes are effectively given a veto power over many local council decisions. In Tauranga, a much-needed expansion of the Port of Tauranga has been held up for years by tribal intransigence.


Late last year, there was an uproar when the mayor of Kaipara denied a newly-elected councillor the right to open a council meeting with a Maori prayer (karakia). I strongly suspect that had a Christian with no Maori ancestry asked to open the council meeting with prayer, she would have been told that the council was a secular institution and a prayer would be inappropriate.


I recently attended the first meeting of a newly-elected council. Male councillors sat in the front row; women councillors sat in the row behind. There were four speeches in the Maori language, with no translation provided, even though the great majority of the councillors and of the members of the public in attendance had not the faintest clue about what was being said. It struck me that this would have been entirely appropriate on a marae, where Maori should clearly be free to determine whatever ritual they choose. But it was grossly inappropriate in a ratepayer-funded facility to rank men ahead of women, and simply rude to give speeches in a language which very few of the audience understood.


The increasing use of Maori words in official documents, on signs and in taxpayer-funded media is nuts if it is intended that most of the population understand what is intended. I have always supported taxpayers’ funds being used to support the teaching of the Maori language to those who wish to learn it. But it is crazy to imagine that the Maori language will ever be more than a curiosity, in much the same way that some Catholics still hanker after the continued use of Latin. New Zealand is hugely fortunate that English is our primary language, as it is the nearest thing there is to a truly international language. Using taxpayers’ funds to teach kids who can’t read and write English effectively how to speak a few words of Maori is crazy.


Much of our problem stems from a failure to understand the Treaty of Waitangi, or the context in which it was signed. Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Maori society was very basic by any standard – no written language, no wheel, no metal tools, no concept of legal ownership, widespread cannibalism and female infanticide. The inter-tribal Musket Wars of the early part of the nineteenth century resulted in a massive loss of life – more deaths in the few decades before 1840 than in all the subsequent wars that New Zealanders have been involved in.


The Treaty of Waitangi was intended to put an end to that, and was eagerly sought by many of the tribal leaders as a way of ending those inter-tribal wars (and perhaps as a way of fending off a French conquest). It involved the chiefs accepting the sovereignty of the Queen, and being guaranteed in return the full possession of their property and “the rights and privileges” of British subjects. In other words, the Treaty unambiguously guaranteed all New Zealanders equal rights.


Indeed, if it had not guaranteed equal political rights, we would now have to discard it and start afresh because there can be no lasting peace in any society where some citizens have a preferred political status by virtue of birth.


As we look to the election, it seems clear that Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party all subscribe to the view that those with a Maori ancestor should have a preferred constitutional status as compared to the rest of us.


Christopher Luxon has said that National rejects “co-governance in public services” and that is certainly a good start. But it was National that signed New Zealand up to UNDRIP in 2010 (something which the Helen Clark Labour Government had refused to do) and created the Marine and Coastal Area Act, which the courts are now interpreting to give tribes customary title over potentially huge amounts of the coast. Too often, National has railed against a Labour Government policy when in Opposition, only to continue that policy largely unchanged when in Government. As a former Leader of the National Party, and somebody with many friends in the National Party caucus, I regret that I don’t feel terribly optimistic about National’s willingness to reverse the racist nonsense we now see all around us. I hope that between now and the election they can give me more confidence.


Winston Peters has been vague on many issues, but on the issue of race he has been consistent throughout his political career. He is strongly of the view that all New Zealanders, no matter their ancestry, should have equal political rights. The question which hovers over New Zealand First, however, is whether they can again get back above a 5% share of the Party Vote: if they don’t, then a vote for New Zealand First would be a wasted vote.


Which leaves ACT and David Seymour. I admit that I have a strong preference for ACT for a whole lot of other reasons also, but on the issue of race, and whether New Zealanders should all have equal political status, David Seymour has been absolutely unambiguous. He favours the repudiation of the UNDRIP on the grounds that we already have in Article III of the Treaty a guarantee that all New Zealanders have equal political rights. He is surely right: there can be no basis for treating some New Zealanders as having any kind of constitutional preference to any other New Zealander. Any other path leads eventually to disaster. We owe it to our grandchildren to get it right.




This article first appeared in E-local


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