Seymour is not for turning on a Treaty referendum.
Despite the well-documented failures of the Ardern-Hipkins government — whether in health, law and order, education or homelessness — it has been extraordinarily successful in one particular area. That is, the stealthy insertion of an interpretation of the Treaty as a “partnership” — manifested as co-governance — into a broad swathe of New Zealand law and policy. Historian Claudia Orange noted in her updated edition of her book The Story of a Treaty, published in January, that a “change in mindsets and attitudes is needed if people in Aotearoa New Zealand are to grasp the revolutionary shifts that have occurred and continue to evolve”. In February, she questioned whether the public had been informed adequately about such shifts. She told the NZ Herald’s Audrey Young there was little knowledge of what was happening with co-governance and co-management agreements: “I think the general public is not aware that we are going through huge revolutionary changes in the country and, in fact, we have taken [them] such a long way there is no going back.” While National, Act and NZ First are opposed to co-governance being implemented in public services such as Three Waters and the Māori Health Authority — and NZ First has pledged to withdraw New Zealand from UNDRIP — Act is the party that most decisively rejects the claim “there is no going back”. In fact, David Seymour has prescribed a root-and-branch recalibration of the Treaty’s role in New Zealand’s policy and law. That is, he believes the underhand constitutional revolution the Ardern-Hipkins government has quietly imposed on the nation will require a counter-revolution to halt or reverse its progress. Seymour says that if Act is elected to government he would push to introduce a new law redefining the principles of the Treaty. Voters would be given the chance to approve or reject the Treaty Principles Act at the 2026 election to determine whether the law came into force. He says the Act would be “short but decisive”:
• All citizens of New Zealand have the same political rights and duties; • All political authority comes from the people by democratic means including universal suffrage, regular and free elections with a secret ballot; • New Zealand is a multi-ethnic liberal democracy where discrimination based on ethnicity is illegal.
He added: “For the avoidance of doubt, these principles prevail over any contradictory enactment by Parliament, or finding on the matter of Treaty Principles by the Courts.” Voters are already familiar with this legislative sequence after the End of Life Choice Bill became a law when Parliament passed it in 2019 — in the wake of extensive public discussion — but it didn’t become the law until a majority of voters had ratified it at the 2020 election. Although Act’s proposed referendum has been denounced as not only racist but also overly ambitious given the thrust of decades of judicial decisions and government policy, Seymour’s response is straightforward: “It was Parliament that said there were [Treaty] principles in the first place, so Parliament is well within its rights to say what those principles mean.” Significantly, the public doesn’t appear to share the horror expressed by some commentators at the prospect of a referendum. A poll published by Stuff in mid-September showed that 48 per cent agreed that, “There should be a referendum on Māori co-governance, to end the confusion and let every New Zealander have a say.” Only 17 per cent opposed the suggestion and 34 per cent were neutral. In the same poll, 45 per cent disagreed that, “There should be more co-governance with Māori in government decision-making”, while 28 per cent agreed. Twenty-seven per cent were neutral. Seymour has made a referendum one of Act’s bottom lines in coalition discussions. National’s Christopher Luxon has said he doesn’t support the proposal — telling The Hui this week that he thought a referendum was “divisive” and “not helpful” and wasn’t National Party policy — but he stopped short of ruling it out, despite being pressed on the question. Winston Peters has poured scorn on Act’s proposal — telling a meeting in Paraparaumu last month: “They’re going to legislate about its principles [but] there are no principles in the Treaty of Waitangi!”. And when his deputy, Shane Jones, was asked last week in TVNZ’s Māori Kaupapa Debate if his party supported a referendum, he replied with an emphatic “No”, adding: “We have not supported David Seymour — and his new discovery of his [Māori] DNA — on anything.” A major difference between Winston Peters and Seymour can be summed up by the fact Peters is happy to be seen as a handbrake on a National-Act government while Seymour wants to turbo-charge policy reform. For these reasons, it’s clear that a National-Act coalition will be vastly different to a National-Act-NZF grouping on the question of the Treaty and co-governance. As political analyst Philip Crump noted last week: “The difference in the shape of the government between the two centre-right options is huge and extends far beyond whether a government which includes New Zealand First is too unstable or not. It will determine the extent to which co-governance arrangements are unpicked in legislation, policies and management structures across the public sector beyond the totemic Three Waters and resource management reform. It will determine how Treaty politics more generally is addressed and whether David Seymour’s preference of a referendum is favoured.” The reminder by Act’s leader that his party has the option of offering confidence but not necessarily supply to National if “real change” is unlikely to be pursued should not be passed off as mere petulance, as some critics have done. Rather, it is better understood as the principled stand of a conviction politician who won’t settle for tinkering with the status quo, not least in overturning Labour’s race-based policies. Some centre-right voters would be happy just to have Three Waters and the RMA replacement legislation repealed, as Luxon has promised a National-led government would do in its first 100 days. However, those who see New Zealand standing at a crossroads between what Auckland University’s Professor Elizabeth Rata has called an “ethno-state”, in which ancestry determines political rights, and a liberal democracy, in which everyone has the same democratic and human rights, will readily embrace more far-reaching law changes.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.
This piece was originally published at The Platform