The Treaty Principle’s Bill, Māori Activism and what this means for Democracy.

In my last article, I wrote about decolonization.  Decolonization relates to the recent Hui, Waitangi Day, the new government, and David Seymour’s Treaty Principles Bill. Chris Trotter wrote a timely article entitled “The Liberators,” where he rightly professed that, “The Coalition’s problem lies in the incompatibility of its major donors’ expectations with the hopes of the many thousands of voters who’d abandoned a Left they no longer recognised, for a Right that had promised to defend Democracy. It’s a problem that will develop slowly, only becoming apparent as the impact of the Coalition’s first bold steps to roll back the unmandated reforms of the Sixth Labour Government is absorbed by a judiciary, a public service, universities, and a mainstream media all determined to “resist” the “liberation” of October 14, 2023.” 

Trotter concluded his article saying “The parties of the Coalition will pay a high price if they refuse to adequately respond to the electorate’s determination that they should, indeed, act as the liberators of the New Zealand people. Democracy cannot defend itself. It can only be defended.

“And because the parties that attacked New Zealand democracy came from the Left, the job of restoring it – and making it stronger – is one the Right cannot refuse.”

Māori activists are unhappy that the majority of New Zealanders voted for a clear change in direction by electing a new government. A coalition government that is keen to rebalance the function of government for both Māori and non-Māori.  Decolonization and Māori activism in government departments and in many aspects of how we do business has gone too far.

This is where debating David Seymour’s Treaty Principles Bill is important. There have been mischievous and problematic comments made about this bill that boarder on disinformation and lies.  Māori activists and even some politicians are saying that this bill is intended to rewrite the treaty, and at worse, tear down the treaty itself. This is both wrong and worrying because where are the likes of the Disinformation Project to clearly state that these claims are false? Where is mainstream media?

They obviously wish to only foster falsehoods, which is disturbing for free speech and democracy. They are happy to see the debate that is needed to be shouted down, without allowing an open debate. It is also worrying that the concept of being treated equally under the law, equal property rights, and one person, one vote is being challenged. Even democracy and the concept of sovereignty is being challenged and what it means to co-exist as one people.

Recently, I read an article by Jack Vowles, Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington, titled “The idea of ‘sovereignty’ is central to the Treaty debate – why is it so hard to define?”  On the one hand, he opinions that “ACT’s initiative, even if ill-conceived, could still open up a widened debate that is long overdue.” He adds “ACT’s draft bill would rewrite the principles according to the English text only – or, at best, on a shallow reading of the Māori.”  While the remainder of the article is illuminating and well balanced in its assessment, this statement is galling (I will refer to Vowles’s assertions later). In a recently posted explanation on the Treaty Principles Bill, ACT stated,

“As a starting point, the Treaty Principles Bill suggests using the three articles in the Māori version of the Treaty originally signed in 1840:

Article 1: “kawanatanga katoa o o ratou whenua” – the New Zealand Government has the right to govern all New Zealanders.

Article 2: “ki nga tangata katoa o Nu Tirani te tino rangatiratanga o o ratou whenua o  ratou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa” – the New Zealand Government will honour all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and all their property.

Article 3: “a ratou nga tikanga katoa rite tahi” – all New Zealanders are equal under the law with the same rights and duties.”

Even a professor of political science is prepared to make a rash statement, when in fact the debate is around the Māori text of the treaty.  I am not going to debate the merits of this bill, (though I do believe one is needed), only to highlight the fact that people opposed to this bill are prepared to pronounce falsehoods without debating the subject at hand in a fair and respectful manner. In fact, those opposed to this bill are worried about the gains made under the previous government being lost.

This leads onto what Vowles wrote about sovereignty. Vowles referred heavily to the late Hugh Kawharu’s authoritative translation of the key text of Te Tiriti, when he stated that “The chiefs […] give absolutely to the Queen of England for ever the complete government over their land.” The core of Vowles article is as follows:

“Māori also accepted the Crown would “protect” them. In Kawhuru’s translation, that protection was for “the unqualified exercise of their chieftainship over their lands, villages, and treasures”, and over “all ordinary people of New Zealand”, who would have “the same rights and duties of citizenship as the people of England”. “Kawharu also noted that “chieftainship” was based on limited authority and is best understood as “trusteeship.” By implication, then, chieftainship did not mean sovereignty. This idea was simply not in the Māori conceptual toolbox at the time. “An Indigenous people had agreed that an immigrant people could come to their land and be governed, not by Indigenous authorities, but by an immigrant government.

“The Indigenous people also agreed that the immigrant government had a duty of protection over them: not just over the authority of their chiefs, but also over the “ordinary people.” Such protection would require action to prevent tribal warfare and end slavery. It stretches credibility to interpret these agreements as meaning Māori signatories of Te Tiriti retained “absolute sovereignty.”

Vowles explains how the definition of sovereignty has changed over time. Yet, a final definition of sovereignty can be explained as, “In a democracy, sovereignty is sourced in “the people.” Like everyone else, Māori vote in elections and elect MPs and are therefore part of the Crown: the sovereign people.” And most telling, “Sovereignty is effective where, at any one place or time, a binding decision is made within an entire system of government. Sovereignty cannot be divided, because such division would inevitably result in conflict that would often fail to be resolved.”

The Treaty Principles Bill is as much about defining sovereignty as about defining the principles of the treaty as defining the concept of “partnership” which was given force in 1986 by the then Labour government, and then reinforced in the State-Owned Enterprises Act. The Court of Appeal reinforced this in a decision in 1987. But “As the Minister who introduced the Resource Management Act 1991 stated later, “I am quite sure that none of us knew what we meant when we signed up to that formula”.

This debate is thus as much about sovereignty, what principles mean, what is a partnership, and how best to navigate this debate. As Article 1 of the Treaty, in both the English and Māori texts, clearly states the New Zealand Government has the right to govern all New Zealanders.

The Right Honourable David Lange said in 2000, “We can have a democratic form of government, or we can have indigenous sovereignty. They can’t coexist and we can’t have them both.”