Last Sunday, the Sunday Star-Times recalled on its front page the “fiery debate” triggered by my speech to the Orewa Rotary Club just 20 years earlier. Articles by several authors in the same paper brought the debate up-to-date and warned of the dangers of ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill, which the National Party’s coalition agreement with ACT provides will be introduced into Parliament, will be passed at First Reading, and will be referred to a Select Committee – but with no commitment from National to support the Bill beyond that.
It is not my role to support any political party, though in the interests of full disclosure I am a member of the ACT Party and was very briefly (in 2011) the Leader of ACT.
But what the ACT Party is arguing for is of foundational importance to New Zealand’s future. What is surprising is the reluctance of the other coalition partners to endorse ACT’s proposed Bill: historically, both the National Party and New Zealand First have had a commitment to equal citizenship.
In recent years, more and more people have been led to believe that the Treaty of Waitangi – or Te Tiriti o Waitangi if you prefer – created a partnership between two distinct groups of New Zealanders, with those who chance to have one or more Maori ancestors (now always with other ancestors as well) having an inherently superior constitutional status.
According to this view, those with some Maori ancestry have a superior right to be consulted about a whole range of policy issues, including what may be done with, or built on, land which has long been in private ownership.
According to this view, those with some Maori ancestry have a superior constitutional right to decide what may be done with water resources, which the rest of us have long regarded as being in community ownership.
According to this view, those with some Maori ancestry are entitled to separate political representation in Parliament and in local government.
David Seymour totally rejects this interpretation of the Treaty and argues that having a society where some citizens have rights which are inherently superior to those of other citizens is inconsistent with any reasonable definition of democracy. He argues that we have no future as a democracy if rights are dependent on who our ancestors were.
Moreover, he argues that the words of the Treaty actually support what he proposes that the Treaty Principles Bill will provide – that the government has the right to rule, that we all have rights to our own property, and that all citizens have equal rights.
Really? The government has the right to rule? That implies that the chiefs who signed Te Tiriti surrendered sovereignty to the Queen. Certainly. We know with a high degree of certainty what the English words given to the Rev Henry Williams to translate into te reo actually said, and they unambiguously envisaged Maori chiefs surrendering sovereignty to Queen Victoria.
The speeches made by the chiefs who read or heard the Treaty in te reo – speeches written down at the time by Colenso – show that they fully understood they were being asked to surrender sovereignty to the Queen, and some of them strongly objected (even though most of them eventually did sign the Treaty). Speeches made by the large number of chiefs who assembled at Kohimarama in 1860 clearly show that they accepted the Queen as sovereign.
For most of the years since that time great Maori leaders accepted that the Crown was sovereign, with the greatest of these being Sir Apirana Ngata.
And for all of the time since 1840, most Maori New Zealanders have behaved as if they accepted that the Crown was sovereign – they have been employed by the state as teachers, nurses, doctors, soldiers and sailors, they have paid taxes to the state, and received benefits from the state.
It’s interesting to speculate how things would evolve if the notion that Maori have inherently superior rights to the rest of us became entrenched. At the moment, the legal definition of a “Maori” is anybody with a Maori ancestor. That definition almost makes sense today, but in three or four generations? A friend of mine told me several years ago that he had 32 great-great-great-grandparents, 15 of whom were from England, 10 from Ireland, four from Scotland, two from Wales, and only one Maori. He is legally entitled to join the Maori electoral roll and presumably qualify for other government programmes reserved for “Maori”. That seems ridiculous, but it is only slightly more ridiculous than the present situation, where people who had far more ancestors who were not Maori than who were are entitled to government programmes reserved for Maori.
I have no idea of course what will happen to ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill when it comes before Parliament. But whatever happens to that particular piece of legislation, it is imperative that as a community we resolve whether we wish to be a democracy where all citizens have equal political rights or whether we want to descend further into the awful morass where rights depend on who our ancestors were.