Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This article was first published at The Platform
No one is going to die wondering how some of the nation’s most influential journalists personally view the new National-led government. It has become abundantly clear within a few days of the coalition agreements being signed that they both loathe and fear it.
It is often said that the National Party attracts people who imagine they are born to rule. But since the details of the agreements between National, Act and New Zealand First were announced on Friday, it seems it is the left-leaning media who see themselves as the nation’s true aristocrats, endowed with a perpetual mandate to decide which ideas are suitable for public discussion. And which should be allowed to be put to voters in a referendum.
They will, of course — from a deep sense of noblesse oblige — accept a regular change in government from left to right and back again, but only as long as every party follows the broad parameters of the script they have supplied.
How else could anyone explain their outpouring of anger, disbelief and outrage that a new government has gone beyond the remit journalists have granted?
Among the shibboleths the legacy media holds dear is that the Treaty is a “partnership”; everyone must take buses and ride bicycles more often lest we all die in a mass global boiling event; and that men can become women by merely twitching their noses (or stitching their genitals).
It is also an article of faith that New Zealand is hopelessly racist (particularly the health system) and that the rich (including ordinary landlords) are mostly parasites.
That a majority of voters openly defied journalists’ authority in October by voting for parties with different views on many of these matters is seen by some as nothing less than unforgivable insubordination.
Winston Peters’ jibe at the media on Friday — “You’ve lost! You lost! Right?” — certainly showed he saw the role played by much of the media during the election campaign in exactly that way.
Former Labour Cabinet minister Michael Bassett made a similar point on Sunday about TVNZ, Newshub and RNZ: “All of them played Labour’s games for so long that their political journalists came to believe Labour’s policies were theirs to protect.”
Among the most deeply outraged by the coalition agreements was broadcaster John Campbell. In a long column on TVNZ’s website, he described the coalition as “a sulk made formal”, “deeply regressive”, “dog whistling”, “mean”, “re-colonising”, and “empty of ideas”.
And this last insult came despite the fact the coalition documents are full of ideas — including removing race-based policy everywhere; more funds for Pharmac; shifting the Fees-Free provision for tertiary students from the first year of study to the final, saving $100 million; a comprehensive Covid inquiry; narrowing the Reserve Bank’s remit to a focus on price stability, and so on. They just happen to include ideas that Campbell seems to really dislike.
He appeared completely horrified, for instance, that climate change was not given the prominence he believes it deserves. He could scarcely credit that “National’s coalition agreement with Act contains no reference to climate change at all” and that its agreement with New Zealand First “contains the insistence that climate change policies ‘do not undermine national energy security’.”
It has obviously never crossed his mind that concern about anthropogenic climate change is vitally important to the mainstream media but far less so to much of the population. The claim that human activity is pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and dangerously warming the planet is a belief that is very lightly held by many New Zealanders, including politicians — and quickly abandoned if a trip to Paris or New York on a gas-guzzling jet is imminent.
Campbell’s animus has led him into arrant stupidity. Referring to NZ First’s insistence that the names of government departments should be in English, he wrote: “The idea that a single human life will be improved by demanding that Waka Kotahi be called the New Zealand Transport Agency is the strangest fancy. This is frontier country stuff. The late-night ravings of a man alone in a bar. Except Winston’s not alone. Christopher has agreed to it.”
Actually, anyone who is opposed to the use of Maori (rather than English) names for government departments will find their lives definitely improved in the sense that at least one element of a misguided language revitalisation policy has been corrected. As a journalist, Campbell should know just how deeply many people feel about compelled speech of any kind (including the mandatory use of pronouns on emails and other communications). That he implies such concerns are trivial is a clear sign of his disdain for many voters’ judgment.
On Newshub Nation on Saturday, journalist Mihingarangi Forbes, who hosts RNZ’s Maori affairs programme Mata, showed a similar disdain not only for voters’ interests but also for her interviewer. When Simon Shepherd asked for her opinion on the cancellation of the foreign house-buyer’s tax, Forbes gazed into the middle distance with a look of resolute sadness and said:
“No. I’m just going to talk about what I was coming on [this programme] for… So every single kaupapa Maori initiative looks like it’s gone [under the new government].”
She then recounted how changes to Oranga Tamariki policy were retrograde. In short, she was so determined to move the conversation towards topics she wanted to cover she ignored the question put to her and answered one she hadn’t been asked.
She also asserted Te Tiriti was “under attack”.
When Shepherd suggested it was “under discussion”, she corrected him by curtly repeating, “Attack!”
Forbes also bizarrely recommended anyone, including Seymour, who wanted a “debate about the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi” should go to the Waitangi Tribunal and “sit in that court”.
She seems entirely unaware that many of those wanting to rein in the application of Treaty principles would regard that as similar to an expert in traffic safety taking advice from panel-beaters on how to design an intersection (to adapt a quip by David Lange). For many critics, the Waitangi Tribunal is a huge part of the problem of Treaty overreach.
In fact, NZ First’s coalition agreement with National includes the proviso — supported by Act — that the new government will amend the Waitangi Tribunal Act 1975 to “refocus” its inquiries to the “original intent of that legislation”.
1News made its position on Maori issues crystal clear on Friday evening too. Not least, Maori affairs reporter Te Aniwa Hurihanganui obviously disapproved of Paul Goldsmith being awarded the role of Treaty Negotiations Minister, given he commented in 2021 that colonisation “on balance” was a good thing for Maori.
The legacy media’s biggest fear seems to be that Seymour’s proposed Treaty Principles Bill will go to a referendum to be ratified (or rejected) by the public.
On Saturday, RNZ’s Kim Hill quizzed Maori journalist Annabelle Lee-Mather on the bill and the idea of a referendum. Hill began the interview by admitting she wasn’t “sure what this means” and neither seemed to even know what a referendum would likely ask, with Mather claiming its details hadn’t been “specifically spelled out”.
The pair were stupendously ill-informed about information that has been in the public domain for more than a year. In March last year, Seymour announced that Act was intending for the next government to “pass legislation defining the Principles of the Treaty, in particularly their effect on democratic institutions. Then ask the people to vote on it becoming law.”
In October 2022, Act announced the referendum would ask whether voters approved of the Treaty Principles Act becoming law. Its three suggested clauses would state:
1/ The New Zealand government has the right to govern New Zealand.
2/ The New Zealand government will protect all New Zealanders’ authority over their land and other property
3/ All New Zealanders are equal under the law, with the same rights and duties.
Unfortunately, Lee-Mather had no better grasp on the mounting concern over how the Treaty is interpreted and applied in law and policy. She passed off the call for a referendum as a product of current pessimism about economic uncertainty.
It’s “just a populist issue”, she opined, “where the current resentment New Zealanders are feeling about the state of our economy… inflation… all of those things are being weaponised against Maori, with this idea that somehow Maori are getting better deals than the rest of New Zealanders or rights that other people don’t have. So, I think it’s more about capturing the negativity people are feeling with their lot at the moment.”
Mainstream journalists are going to have to come up to speed pretty fast or be left in the dust as the debate over the role of the Treaty heats up. As it surely will — not least because in the weekend the Taxpayers’ Union hinted at a “well-organised grassroots campaign” to ensure a referendum is held.
The independent media — including The Platform, NZCPR, Point of Order, BFD, Karl du Fresne, and Bassett, Brash and Hide — have been closely analysing He Puapua and the Treaty debate for years. If Hill and Mather had bothered to search out their columns and interviews, they wouldn’t have been so obviously left stumbling around in the dark and looking quite so foolish on a national radio programme.
In particular, they might have understood better exactly why New Zealand has arrived at the point where a referendum on the Treaty principles is a distinct possibility.