As voters become more aware of the stealthy implementation of a Māori separatist agenda, the political risks for the government will rise sharply. Graham Adams reports.
When the Prime Minister claimed in her first term that her government was going to be “transformational” many voters took her seriously — until it became apparent she was unlikely to transform anything much, whether it was unaffordable housing or inadequate public transport or introducing a capital gains tax.
Perhaps, however, we should have been listening more closely when a year ago — and only a few months into her second term — Ardern referred to “foundational change”.
The change in wording was quickly dismissed as a rebranding exercise dreamed up by Labour Party strategists to distance the government from its failure to be in any way transformational. But foundational change is certainly what we are getting in Ardern’s second term — even if most citizens remain unaware of the steady remaking of the nation’s constitutional arrangements via a radical interpretation of the Treaty as a 50:50 partnership.
When asked by David Seymour in Parliament last February to explain the difference between “transformational” and “foundational” change, Ardern airily said she was “referring to a suite of policies — like the introduction of Matariki as a public holiday and the introduction of learning New Zealand history in schools that will make a long-term difference to how we see ourselves as a nation”.
Her response sounded harmless enough and it undoubtedly was designed to sound that way. Ardern certainly wasn’t about to expand on the “suite of policies” her government was stealthily progressing in its push to remake the ship of state while the populace was preoccupied with battening the hatches against the winds of a pandemic.
“Foundational change” based on a particular view of the Treaty clearly wasn’t what most voters signed up for when they voted for Ardern at October 2020’s election. Many thought they were rewarding her with their vote as a thank-you for navigating the nation through the initial round of Covid and encouraging her to continue her good work. As the Prime Minister said repeatedly in the run-up to the election as a justification for not campaigning on much else of substance: “This is the Covid election.”
The aftermath of her landslide victory, however, turned out to be not only about managing Covid but also fulfilling what appears to be the vaulting ambitions of Labour’s Māori caucus and their Cabinet allies such as Andrew Little and David Parker.
Unfortunately for those pushing determinedly but quietly for Māori co-governance to be established in many spheres of New Zealand’s national life — including in the conservation estate, local government, the health and education sectors, water infrastructure, and the Resource Management Act — the headwinds are getting stronger and heavier.
The iwi roadblocks in Northland fronted by former MP Hone Harawira — made legal by a late change to Covid legislation — have been deeply unpopular while opposition to Three Waters has been so vociferous that Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has delayed introducing the enabling legislation from December to the end of March to give her time to soothe the anger of voters and councils.
The debate over giving matauranga Māori equal status with physics, biology and chemistry in the NCEA science syllabus — sparked by a letter in the Listener signed by seven eminent professors — has become so inflammatory that famous US and British public intellectuals, including scientists Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jerry Coyne, have pitched into the fray and made it into an international cause célèbre.
What voters have not been told clearly is that these three seemingly unrelated events — road blocks (as an expression of rangatiratanga over traditional territories); iwi co-governance in Three Waters; and giving matauranga Māori parity with science in the education system — are all part of an overarching programme to implement a radical view of the Treaty.
Call it a strange coincidence if you like but all three were foreshadowed clearly in the revolutionary document He Puapua that was presented to Nanaia Mahuta in November 2019 but kept from the public (and Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister) until after the 2020 election.
However, because nearly the entire political commentariat deny that He Puapua in any way informs, inspires or predicts government policy, most voters are unaware that the co-governance model outlined in that revolutionary document is being steadily implemented in a wide array of domains.
And the government is certainly not about to join the dots for them. Jacinda Ardern — and her senior ministers Nanaia Mahuta and Andrew Little — appear to have adopted the tactics of the Cuban revolutionary leader Jose Marti, who wrote in 1895: “I have had to work quietly and somewhat indirectly, because to achieve certain objectives, they must be kept under cover; to proclaim them for what they are would raise such difficulties that the objectives could not be attained.”
Nevertheless, voters are starting to have their suspicions. And if anything is likely to have convinced them that something deeply underhand is going on, it was the revelation in November that Cabinet had agreed in July that Three Waters would be compulsory.
That, of course, made a complete mockery of the “consultation” period with councils — that culminated in a summary of their submissions being sent on October 22 to Mahuta’s office for appraisal.
The consultation had been sold as a democratic exercise to get councils’ feedback on whether they were likely to opt in or out of the new system. Now it is clear that opting out of a programme that would transfer ratepayers’ assets to four regional entities — and share governance equally with iwi — had never been a real possibility since at least July.
If that is not extraordinary and alarming enough, the Minister of Health, Andrew Little, is pushing ahead with the complete overhaul of our health system at a cost of $486 million — and in the middle of a pandemic, when our hospitals are short of ICU beds and the nurses to staff them.
An integral part of the reforms will be setting up a Māori Health Authority as an independent statutory entity. Again, such a body is recommended in He Puapua.
Just as Nanaia Mahuta is coy about why she believes making the nation’s water infrastructure more efficient requires co-governance with iwi, Little appears not to want to admit that the only way to hand equal power to Māori in the health system is to abolish the 20 DHBs entirely — as his Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill proposes.
Nor does he want to admit openly that the Māori Health Authority will have a right of veto.
Earlier in the year, however, he made his intentions explicit in a Cabinet paper. On 13 April 2021, a memo put out under his name stated:
“My expectation is that the Māori Health Authority should have a co-lead role in relation to national planning and in designing the key operating mechanisms that the system will use. This would require the Māori Health Authority to jointly agree national plans and operational frameworks (e.g. the commissioning framework), with clear approval rights including an ability to exercise a veto in sign-off.
“Having such an approval mandate would ensure the Māori Health Authority is engaged early and constructively, and that critical operations are aligned with a clear hauora Māori vision, embed Māori priorities and mātauranga Māori systems, and enable mechanisms that give life to local Māori leadership in the health system.”
After the Prime Minister had taken a hammering in Parliament from Judith Collins in early May over the right of veto, the Pae Ora legislation unveiled in October is less explicit.
Nevertheless, in an emailed reply to this writer asking about a veto, Little said: “Health New Zealand and the Māori Health Authority will work together in partnership to plan for a system that responds to all the people of New Zealand. They will have to agree on key plans and service arrangements.
“I wanted to be very clear in the [April] Cabinet paper that I expect the Māori Health Authority to be a decision-maker, rather than to merely be consulted. So they will have the ability to refuse to agree to something, as will Health New Zealand.
“If there is an intractable disagreement, the Bill provides that the Minister of Health will decide how to resolve the dispute. I do not anticipate many disputes reaching that point because we all have the same goal -— to achieve the best possible equitable outcomes for all New Zealanders.”
So, representatives of 16 per cent of the population will wrangle on an equal footing with Health New Zealand, which will represent the other 84 per cent of citizens, and with the right to refuse to agree to any proposal.
Given that the Minister of Health will stand back from the discussions between Health NZ and the Māori Health Authority, and there is a requirement for them to agree, the MHA will have an effective right of veto over policy, even if it is not explicitly called that.
The Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill is now at the select committee stage with a report due back on 27 April (after a short period for submissions ending on 9 December). The law is expected to come into effect on July 1.
Unusually, the committee considering the bill is a special “Pae Ora Legislation Committee” made up of members from both the Māori Affairs Committee and the Health Committee rather than just the Health Committee.
In Parliament in October, Act leader David Seymour took issue with this set-up, arguing the government seemed to believe “some elected representatives were incapable of dealing with some matters based on their ethnic background”.
“The minister is asking Parliament to form a new committee to consider a piece of health legislation that is not the Health Committee because the legislation is about meeting Treaty obligations. Well, a lot of people thought it was about healthcare, but he says it’s about Treaty obligations…
“Why was it not possible for the Health Committee — the committee that has been appointed by Parliament to consider health matters — to do it? And this is what it comes down to — they are saying that if you’re not Māori, you maybe aren’t qualified to think about this Pae Ora Bill… because they have insights that other people don’t.”
Such a racialised view of the democratic process is now laced through much of this government’s legislative programme. As opposition to Three Waters continues to flare, the question of whether the public wants to venture further down the path towards an ethno-nationalist state or fight to retain a democratic-nationalist one is set to inflame political passions and debate this year.
Ardern may decide she can ride out the storm by jettisoning some of the separatist agenda. However, whether such a tactical retreat would now steady the ship of state is an open question.
There is a real and growing risk that this year even bigger waves of opposition to Ardern’s co-governance agenda will swamp her administration and she will be swept overboard at 2023’s election.
Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom. He writes at Democracy Project