OPINION

RNZ’s podcast “The Detail” recently examined the call for a Maori Parliament. Hosted by Tom Kitchin, it featured a lengthy interview with the University of Auckland’s Professor of Maori Studies, Margaret Mutu. Her korero with Kitchin encapsulates the immense difficulties New Zealanders now face in attempting any kind of debate over New Zealand’s constitutional future.

Before a nation, or any other collection of human beings, can engage in meaningful debate, it is necessary for the participants to share a common understanding of the subject matter under discussion. To debate the subject of elephants, for example, it is essential that both sides share a common definition of “elephant”.

If one side understands the word elephant to mean a large mammalian quadruped with flapping ears and a long trunk, while the other believes it to be a fearsome feline predator with long whiskers and an orange, black and white-striped coat, then further discussion is pointless. Those involved are simply not talking about the same things.

Professor Mutu’s version of New Zealand history, from the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century to the present day, bears almost no resemblance to the generally accepted version of these islands’ story. The Maori society she describes possesses a political coherence and diplomatic efficacy otherwise unnoticed by contemporary observers. It conducts itself in the manner of a European state, with its representatives negotiating with the British King and his ministers as equals.

It is this Maori state, grown weary of the British King’s ‘unruly subjects’ stinking up Kororareka, that insists upon a treaty being negotiated and signed, whereby the British Crown undertakes to take its miscreant adventurers in hand, applying and enforcing the laws of Great Britain, but only in relation to its own. The power of the Maori chiefs – tino rangatiratanga – must remain untrammelled and unchallenged.

As this extraordinary version of New Zealand history was being recounted by Professor Mutu, her host offered nothing but encouragement. In practically any other context, such heterodoxy would have been challenged at every turn. Indeed, special care would have been taken to ensure that there was at least one academic involved in the podcast – Professor Paul Moon perhaps? – who could offer the listener a very different perspective on the events that led to the 1835 “Declaration of Independence” and the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

Sadly, no such diversity of historical viewpoints was deemed necessary by the public broadcaster. Professor Mutu’s view, which can only be made to conform with the written record and contemporary observation by the most athletic contortions and outrageous historical omissions, was permitted to pass without challenge. Auckland’s Professor of Maori Studies had her story, and Tom Kitchin allowed her to stick to it.

This is not journalism, or, at least, not as most journalists born before 1970 would define it. How, for example, was Captain Hobson able to deceive the representatives of Professor Mutu’s sophisticated Maori polity so easily? And why was his gazetting of the islands of New Zealand as a British colony – an unmistakable confirmation of the sovereignty transferred to the British Crown at Waitangi on 6 February 1840 – not nullified by the unquestionably superior military force then available to the allegedly fiercely independent Maori majority?

Questions such as these offer us a useful glimpse into the vastness of the gulf that separates professor Mutu’s historiography from that of less idiosyncratic historians. Orthodox history does not attempt to compel the events of the past to conform to the needs of political ideologues acting in the present. It is what it is.

But, if the constitutional reforms favoured by Professor Mutu and her followers are to stand any chance of realisation, then her version of New Zealand history (and in fairness, it must be said, the version promulgated by the Waitangi Tribunal) must be accepted by the core institutions of the state. The Treaty of Waitangi must be credited with creating a “partnership” between the British Crown and te iwi Maori, or the “constitutional transformation” sought by irredentist Maori cannot occur.

If sovereignty was indeed ceded to the British, and if, in return, Maori and Pakeha were accorded full legal equality, then the words attributed to Captain Hobson at Waitangi – “Now we are one people” – can justifiably be said to have launched New Zealand in a constitutional direction quite antithetical to the course favoured by the radical professor.

Because legal equality, and the democratic institutions it renders feasible, does not appear to feature prominently in the constitutional arrangements foreshadowed in documents such as the He Puapua Report and Professor Mutu’s own Matike Mai. Indeed, once the inessentials have been pared away, the vision that remains is one of aristocratic power. What would appear to count most in the constitutional arrangements envisaged in these documents is whakapapa – lineage.

Bloodlines, and the lands in which they slowly established their prestige and political influence, leave Pakeha New Zealanders with precisely nowhere to go in te Ao Maori. Their homelands, and what their ancestors did there to win renown, lie 12,000 miles away. Any land they claim to possess here belongs, almost by definition, to someone else. Maori without the right sort of lineage – descendants of those who found themselves on the losing side of timeworn tribal conflicts – are in the same fix. Tangata without whenua count for nothing.

Might this explain why Professor Mutu, presumably with her tongue firmly in her cheek, recently made a written appeal to King Charles III to bring the “unruly Pakeha”, who have somehow contrived to seize political control of his realm, back into line. Clearly, the riff-raff currently masquerading as the New Zealand Government, like the riff-raff at Kororareka, have become a problem. If they are the best that the Pakeha’s much-vaunted democracy can produce, then Mutu would appear to be suggesting that Maori are better off without it.

Certainly, in all the many iterations of a Maori constitution that have emerged from years of marae-based discussion and debate, the elective principle is conspicuous by its absence. Power does not flow upwards, from “We, the People” in these constitutions: it flows down. From the Kingitanga, from the Iwi Leaders Forum, from the CEOs of tribal corporations and urban Maori authorities, from the Ratana Church, from “Sirs and Dames”.

Most of all, however, the right to wield power flows down from the past. Through the generations. Through the blood. Maori walk backwards into the future.

And, that’s the pity of Tom Kitchin’s contribution to “The Detail”: it contains nothing in the way of either a defence of democracy or a challenge to what is being assembled in secret to replace it. Apparently a host of profound political changes is just going to happen. How, and with whose endorsement, is not spelled out. We are simply informed that by 2040, the bicentennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, constitutional transformation will be an accomplished fact.

Long ago it seems now, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Lange, had something important to say on this matter. In his Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture of 23 February 2000 he said:

“Democratic government can accommodate Maori political aspiration in many ways. It can allocate resources in ways which reflect the particular interests of Maori people. It can delegate authority, and allow the exercise of degrees of Maori autonomy. What it cannot do is acknowledge the existence of a separate sovereignty. As soon as it does that, it isn’t a democracy. 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.”

Professor Mutu understands that – do we?

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...