Chris Trotter


TO BE POLITICAL in the fourth quarter of 2023 is not easy. Yes, New Zealand has just passed through a general election, but the outcome of that contest was signalled well in advance by the polls. That the government lost came as no surprise, even if the vehemence of the electorate’s judgement came as a shock to many of the defeated party’s supporters. But, it wasn’t Labour’s thrashing, and the victory of the Right, that made politics so hard. The explanation for the souring of political discourse here, and around the world, may be traced to Southern Israel, Hamas’s hideous rampage of 7 October, and the furious reaction of the Israeli state.

These events have hacked a bloody line through religious faiths, political movements, parties, families and friendships. Where people stand in relation to that dividing line is determined by many factors. Their understanding of history. Their perception of what politics should, and should not, permit. The reach of their hate. The strength of their love. The persuasiveness of their fear.

Significantly, the line runs horizontally, not vertically. Where one stands on the Israel-Hamas War is not a straightforward matter of Left versus Right. On both sides of the classical divide, friends and comrades draw away from each other: blue and white above the line; red, white, green and black below.

Discussing the times and the morals with an old comrade, just a few days ago, we reflected on the fast-decreasing utility of the terms “Right” and “Left”. He recalled the ease with which, as much younger men, we were able to sort the issues of the day into neat ideological piles; separate the protagonists from the antagonists; and know a kind of ontological peace. Now, he told me, the only political idea with which he still identifies unequivocally is Democracy. In the past, he proudly proclaimed himself a socialist. Today, he would own to being a “radical democrat” – nothing more.

And now, as if the malevolent spirit of the times has not destabilised our world enough, New Zealanders’ adherence to the values and processes of democracy is being put to the test. Once again, the dividing line is horizontal, not vertical, with the “decolonising” project of Maori nationalism sundering the supporters of democracy from the partisans of ethnic exceptionalism. Like Palestine, the meaning, purpose, and future of Te Tiriti O Waitangi has become an issue over which an amiable ‘agreement to differ’ is no longer possible.

The day that was always going to dawn has arrived. The day when the unmandated revision of the meaning, purpose and scope of the Treaty of Waitangi runs into the numerical majority of New Zealanders who, according to the pollsters, have run out of patience with the “Treatyists” insistence that ‘Non-Maori’ have an open-ended obligation to acknowledge and fulfil what are now their unabashedly revolutionary constitutional claims. This loss of patience has taken the form of the Act Party’s democratic counter-revision of the Treaty: a political formula it seeks to ratify with a referendum involving – and binding – the whole adult population of New Zealand.

The political leadership of Maoridom, and their Pakeha supporters, have been quick to declare their opposition to any resolution of Treaty differences by way of counting votes. The former Minister of Maori Affairs, Willie Jackson, has warned that elements within the Maori world are willing to “make war” on any attempt to re-write the Treaty’s meaning. (That the Waitangi Tribunal and the Judiciary have been doing exactly that for the best part of fifty years appears to have slipped the former minister’s mind.)

Considerably less ferociously, the distinguished Treaty historian, Dame Anne Salmond, has also taken up an anti-referendum position. Writing for the Newsroom site, she argues that “the idea of putting the ‘principles of the Treaty’ to a popular vote is unjust and unwise, and should not be entertained by any responsible government ….. a referendum on ‘the principles of the Treaty,’ given its populist appeal to the majority and its inflammatory potential, is not the right (tika) way to conduct this kind of discussion. It would be unjust and divisive, inciting extreme views in all directions and fostering misinformation, anger and ill-will.”

The central difficulty with Dame Anne’s position is that it fails to acknowledge that the manner in which the (re)interpretation of the Treaty has been carried out since the passage of the Waitangi Tribunal legislation in 1975 has not been all that “tika” either. The re-conceptualisation of New Zealand’s democratic system of government was undertaken by institutions and individuals not subject to the judgement of the citizenry. Attempting to re-construct the nation’s constitutional edifice without reference to those obliged to live within it was always a very risky venture.

Dame Anne is not alone in her view that holding a referendum on the Treaty would not be wise. Rather than leave the decision to the electors, the former National Party Defence Minister, and present Law Commission member, Dr Wayne Mapp, argues for a Royal Commission of Inquiry “charged with coming up with an acceptable set of ‘Principles of the Treaty’, that could form the basis of legislative definition of the principles. The term itself is a creature of statute but it has never been statutorily defined. So over the last thirty six years the Courts have fulfilled that role, supplemented by the bureaucracy.”

Presumably, Dr Mapp is channelling the wisdom of King Solomon, since nothing less would be required to select a panel of Royal Commissioners acceptable to all the parties involved in the Treaty Debate. Any line-up receiving the thumbs-up from Iwi leaders, Te Pati Maori and Willie Jackson would, almost certainly, get the thumbs-down from David Seymour and Winston Peters. Which is, precisely, why a referendum is necessary.

Dr Mapp is not convinced. “The reason why I oppose a referendum is that it will be an explicit removal of minority rights. Maori are a minority, mostly contained in the 18%. They will not agree to an ACT imposed definition of the principles of the treaty. I am well connected to Maori views on this matter, primarily through my wife [Denese Henare – C.T.]. I know the level of response and division that such a referendum will cause.”

Once again, the apparent absence of concern at what manner of response and division might ensue when those Mapp describes as “conservative senior politicians” are successful in persuading Christopher Luxon to rule out a referendum. Clearly, the levying of war against the Crown is something only Maori have the wit to threaten.

And, therein, lies the conundrum Luxon will have to face. If he bows to Maori threats to “make war” on his coalition government by scotching Act’s referendum proposal, then what’s next? What does he suppose will be the lesson drawn by those Maori determined to persist with co-governance, with Three Waters, with the Maori Health Authority?

“The last thing National needs over the next three years is an intemperate ‘debate’ over the principles of the Treaty.” Opines Dr Mapp. “There is a smarter approach to this issue.” So the Crown has insisted, ever since the 1980s, when it became frightened of what Maori might do if it dared to say “No”. But, it was those “smarter” approaches, driven by fear, that prompted the decisions that have led us, concession by concession, one legal judgement inspiring and empowering the next, to this present position. Thus we find ourselves located, dangerously, between a rock and a hard place.

But, being political has never been easy – not even when one takes the easy way out. The moment always arrives when a choice has to be made. Democracy? Or Ethnic Exceptionalism? And what determines the choice? That, too, does not change:

Our understanding of history. Our perception of what politics should, and should not, permit. The reach of our hate. The strength of our love. The persuasiveness of our fear.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 13 November 2023. Chris Trotter blogs at Bowalley Road.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...

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