By Chris Trotter*
"Getting ahead of the story” is one of the most important aspects of crisis management. As the PR mavens are fond of reminding their clients: “Explaining is losing.”
If Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government is not very careful, however, it will soon find itself having to explain why it has failed to reject out-of-hand an official document which calmly anticipates the end of democracy as most New Zealanders understand it.
The Report of the Working Group on a Plan to Realise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand is one of the most remarkable documents ever submitted to a Minister of the Crown. Set forth on its pages is a twenty-year plan to transform New Zealand from one of the world’s oldest and most respected continuous democracies into what would effectively be a political condominium, presided over by co-equal Maori and Non-Maori rulers. A state in which the economic and cultural power of non-indigenous New Zealanders would be much diminished, and the authority, wealth and influence of its indigenous people greatly expanded.
Entitled He Puapua, the report’s authors: Claire Charters, Kayla Kingdon-Bebb, Tamati Olsen, Waimirirangi Ormsby, Emily Owen, Judith Pryor, Jacinta Ruru, Naomi Solomon and Gary Williams; are refreshingly upfront about the scope of their endeavours. In an explanatory note on the report’s title they state:
“‘He puapua’ means ‘a break’, which usually refers to a break in the waves. Here, it refers to the breaking of the usual political and societal norms and approaches. We hope that the breaking of a wave will represent a breakthrough where Aotearoa’s constitution is rooted in te Tiriti o Waitangi and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
For most people “the breaking of the usual political and societal norms and approaches” is another way of describing revolutionary change. Certainly, it is difficult to interpret the Declaration Working Group’s (DWG) blueprint for change as anything less. It is highly unlikely, however, that when the Prime Minister spoke of “transformation”, she was referring to He Puapua’s proposed revolutionary reconstruction of the New Zealand state.
Even so, when the Minister of Maori Development, Nanaia Mahuta, presented her paper entitled DEVELOPING A PLAN ON NEW ZEALAND’s PROGRESS ON THE UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES to the 18 March 2019 meeting of the Cabinet Māori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti Committee, it is rather surprising that her colleagues were not temporarily deafened by political alarm bells going off in their heads.
Did none of those present think to parse out the potentially disastrous political consequences of commissioning a “Declaration plan” which, according to Mahuta, “could be a national plan of action, a strategy, or some other tool that provides a map that demonstrates and guides progress across government. I expect the Declaration plan to include time-bound, measurable actions that show how we are making a concerted effort towards achieving the objectives of the Declaration.”
Clearly not, because that is precisely what the DWG presented to the Minister seven months later. Te Puni Kokiri’s response to the document was certainly not discouraging: “The DWG provided the Minister with their final report, He Puapua, on 1 November 2019. The DWG’s 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.”
Somewhere, however, someone decided that, on reflection, it might be better to keep the content of He Puapua under wraps. It was not until October of 2020 that Mahuta consented to the release of a highly truncated version of the report.
Unsurprisingly, given the content of He Puapua, opponents of the now decades old “Maori Separatist” agenda were not slow to recognise its radical implications for the future of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. Former Act MP, and founder/director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, Muriel Newman, even managed to secure of copy of the whole 123-page document.
Newman’s judgement of the report’s contents was savage:
“In essence, once a Treaty-based constitution is in place and tikanga is embedded in the common law, under Vision 2040 Maori separatists will control the country.
“This is not pie in the sky. It is already underway.
“There has been no public debate about the Declaration, nor was it mentioned in the Labour Party’s election manifesto.
“The only information freely available about this UN plan to replace New Zealand democracy with tribal rule – and enact the biggest overhaul of public affairs this country has ever seen – was a general announcement by Minister Mahuta in 2019, and now, a year and a half later, the partial publication of a document revealing Jacinda Ardern’s dangerous intentions.”
Are the National Party and Act aware of the existence of He Puapua, its contents and recommendations? Maybe not. In October of 2020 both of the right-wing parties were in the midst of an election campaign and its aftermath. It is just possible that they missed the importance – and even the fact – of its release altogether.
Besides, as Newman points out, it was under the Prime Ministership of National’s John Key that New Zealand signed-on to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Or, more precisely, it was Key who authorised the Maori Party co-leader, Pita Sharples to fly off secretly to New York in April 2010 to surprise the world with his country’s acceptance at the United Nations.
At the time this was considered something of a coup for both Sharples and Key. After all, the Labour leader, Helen Clark, had consistently refused to support the Declaration while she was prime minister. Clark, like Winston Peters, was convinced that its provisions would have dire consequences for the country’s democratic institutions. Peters’ summation was typically trenchant: “The United Nations Indigenous Peoples Declaration… is the final step on the road to separatism. This is the road to Zimbabwe.”
But if Newman is right, and National is steering clear of the whole issue out of embarrassment, that still leaves unexplained Act’s failure to respond to what can only be considered the most extraordinary political gift.
For a classical liberal party like Act, the idea that a fundamental transformation in the nation’s constitutional, legal, political, economic and cultural arrangements could be contemplated in secret, and enacted piecemeal, without the prior passage of an authorising referendum, piles anathema upon abomination.
Act’s leader, David Seymour, should be demanding from the present Minister of Maori Development a categorical rejection of He Puapua’s “roadmap”. At the very least he should be seeking a rock-solid commitment from Willie Jackson – and the Prime Minister – that the creation of a bi-cultural state, founded squarely upon the prevailing reading of te Tiriti o Waitangi and the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, will only proceed on the basis of a two-thirds referendum majority.
Will he, though? The possibility has to be conceded that Act – along with National – will dismiss He Puapua as just one more example of Te Puni Kokiri’s magical thinking. If this is, indeed, their response, then they will be vindicating the prediction made nearly 40 years ago by Donna Awatere, author of the ground-breaking series of articles published in Broadsheet under the title “Maori Sovereignty”:
“The strength of white opposition will be allayed by the fact that Maori sovereignty will not be taken seriously. Absolute conviction in the superiority of white culture will not allow most white people to even consider the possibility.”
The likely consequences for Labour, however, if “white people” are persuaded to take the ideas and plans contained in the DWG’s report seriously, are potentially so dire that the only realistic way to get ahead of this story is to kill it – and He Puapua – stone dead.