Matthew Hooton: Judith Collins’ speech raises important issues for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Those hoping for crude race-baiting in Judith Collins’ big speech were disappointed. The National leader’s address was more moderate, serious and considered than expected.

Building on inquiries by Act, Collins raised important questions about the Government’s He Paupau working group report, which outlines a detailed plan for New Zealand’s most sweeping constitutional transformation since 1840. Collins’ speech may betray political desperation, as Māori Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis claims.

But the issues raised still deserve an honest response by the Prime Minister, not least to those Māori whose hopes of a fundamental constitutional makeover by 2040 her Government has fuelled.

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  • Matthew Hooton: Judith Collins takes aim at the wrong target

Like Don Brash, Collins reconfirmed National’s support for kohanga reo, kura kaupapa, wānanga, Māori-based health programmes, and added Whānau Ora to the list. She expressed pride in National’s outstanding record in settling Treaty of Waitangi claims.

But whereas Brash denied colonisation and Treaty breaches had caused material differences between Maori and Pakeha income distribution or health status, Collins was explicit that they and the New Zealand Land Wars had. “The inequities we see today,” she said, “trace back to the actions of the past.”

Moreover, while Brash wouldn’t recognise the Treaty of Waitangi as New Zealand’s founding document, Collins not only did so but confirmed work is under way to include it in National’s constitution. “The Treaty,” she said, “is a powerful document that provides the context for a strong discussion to strengthen our [National Party] values.”

Collins even claimed National’s values are already founded on the Treaty, at least as she interpreted it.

In this, her speechwriters may need to be more careful in their use of te reo, lest they accidentally carve out a more radical position than intended. Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the
Treaty of Waitangi are not the same thing, and nor are kāwanatanga and sovereignty. It is extremely unlikely Collins or National intended to endorse the former.

National has form on such mistakes. Those close to its 2003 constitutional changes say “the Treaty of Waitangi” was removed by accident rather than design. The party should be careful it doesn’t accidentally add “Te Tiriti o Waitangi” to its constitution without at least knowing what it means.

Linked inextricably to this distinction are the issues Collins raised around He Paupau.
The report is a direct consequence of John Key’s decision in 2010, over the objections of many in his party, that New Zealand would support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Helen Clark, had refused an endorsement, even in qualified terms. She worried key provisions were fundamentally incompatible with New Zealand’s constitutional and legal arrangements, the Treaty of Waitangi, and governing for the good of all New Zealanders.

Specifically, Clark’s permanent representative to the UN told the General Assembly in 2007 that it would give Māori “a right to own, use, develop or control” all the land in New Zealand, including “lands now lawfully owned by other citizens, both indigenous and non-indigenous”. The permanent representative said it implies “indigenous peoples have a right of veto over a democratic legislature and national resource management”.

Key was more relaxed. He argued that New Zealand signing up to the declaration was important to his Māori Party support partner but meant nothing to National. He insisted that while the text “affirms accepted rights and establishes future aspirations” it was non-binding and so didn’t really matter.

If Key believed this in 2010, he didn’t for long. In 2014, his Government told the UN General Assembly that New Zealand would develop a plan to achieve the ends of the declaration.

Fast forward to March 2019 and the Ardern Government’s Cabinet Māori Crown Relations Committee agreed Nanaia Mahuta would “lead a process to develop a national plan of action, strategy or other measure on New Zealand’s progress towards the objectives of the declaration”.

The meeting included Davis, Mahuta, Grant Robertson, Andrew Little, Stuart Nash, Peeni Henare, then Māori caucus chair Willie Jackson and Ardern’s staff. The committee set up a working group, including outside experts on human and indigenous rights. These decisions were endorsed by the full Cabinet, chaired by Ardern.

The working group was led by Professor Claire Charters of the University of Auckland. In her specialist area of indigenous peoples’ rights in international and constitutional law, she is at least as highly regarded as Michael Cullen on tax, Professor Cindy Kiro on welfare, Bali Haque on school management or Heather Simpson on health economics.

The rest of the working group was also highly qualified, and included senior officials from the Office of Māori Crown Relations, Te Puni Kokiri and the Department of Conservation.

Within the context of their mandate and outlook, their report is well-argued and scholarly.
The working group presented He Paupau to Mahuta in November 2019 but unlike similar reports on tax, welfare, schools or health, the Government kept it secret. It was not until October 2020 that Mahuta would partially release it. The full version has since fallen off several trucks.

At the heart of He Paupau is Vision 2040. It calls for “the breaking of the usual political and societal norms” and a new constitution rooted in Te Tiriti and the UN declaration. There would be two “spheres of authority” which would share power. The rangatiratanga or chieftainship sphere would reflect Māori governance over people and places. The kāwanatanga or government sphere would represent Crown governance. Māori would be able to participate in the kāwanatanga sphere but authority in the rangatiratanga sphere would be exercised by iwi and hapū. There would be areas of joint authority, including for national defence.

The plan details how this model would be rolled out across all areas of government by 2040. It suggests there could be an Upper House or Senate with equal representation between the rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga spheres.

Unlike the tax, welfare, education or health working groups, the Government has not publicly responded to Charters and her colleagues’ proposals. It seems most likely that they have had their time wasted no less than Cullen, Kiro, Haque and to a lesser extent Simpson had theirs.

But Ardern at least thanked that lot for their work and announced publicly which recommendations her Government would run with or reject. No similar courtesy has been extended to Charters and her colleagues, or to those interested in constitutional reform.
All we have heard from the Government is a comment on the Te Puni Kokiri website that the report “was highly insightful and provided a positive starting point to guide our thinking, and will be used as part of the work programme to develop a declaration plan”. Some of its thinking has been built into aspects of the health reforms.

I will make no friends on either side of the debate by saying I don’t too much care. Whatever governance model Ardern’s Government has in mind for 2040, certain eternal laws of the universe will remain unchanged.

Among them: Great powers seek global hegemony, and we need to keep expansionist ones out of our region. Kids grow up most happy in stable family environments and warm, dry homes. New Zealand has to sell things for more than they cost to produce if we want to survive. Our living standards will fall if we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. No one can operate globally unless they are competent in at least one lingua franca. They can’t work in finance, engineering or much else unless they know maths. Printing money causes inflation, benefiting asset and debt holders while hurting the thrifty and poor. Too much carbon in the atmosphere causes temperatures to rise.

It doesn’t really matter who sits in whatever legislative body in Wellington, these things matter more. And, right now, New Zealand – and particularly Māori – are failing on all of them. These problems are much more urgent priorities than anything in He Paupau or Collins’ speech, even if we might need some so-called race-based programmes to fix them.

Ardern owes everyone an indication of whether He Paupau needs to be taken seriously, or will just go the way of Cullen’s capital gains tax plan.

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