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Now a focus of national debate, the Pandora's box of ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill exposes deep society division, the dangers of both judicial activism, and populist referenda. Ross Stitt thinks we should heed the ugly lessons of Australia's failed Voice

Public Policy / opinion
Now a focus of national debate, the Pandora's box of ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill exposes deep society division, the dangers of both judicial activism, and populist referenda. Ross Stitt thinks we should heed the ugly lessons of Australia's failed Voice
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Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has ruled out supporting the ACT Party’s Treaty Principles Bill beyond the select committee process. That means no defined Treaty principles and no referendum to adopt them.

But ACT leader (and future Deputy PM) David Seymour’s not so sure. He thinks Luxon could yet bow to public opinion on the issue. ‘The bit I don’t believe is he won’t change his mind if the public really wants it’, Seymour said of the PM.

Australia’s in no position to advise New Zealand on race relations. But when it comes to ACT’s proposal, kiwis would do well to consider recent history across the ditch.

2023 saw a national referendum to amend the Australian Constitution by creating an Indigenous ‘Voice’ to advise the government. Voters rejected the proposition 60/40.

The referendum process was a dispiriting affair, and many lessons were learnt. Three stand out for New Zealand.

First, a referendum on a contested issue can be highly acrimonious. And deeply damaging. It creates an environment where public debate frequently descends into public abuse. Polarisation increases and extremism thrives. Misinformation and disinformation from all sides proliferate on social media.

Crucially, a referendum is much worse than just a national conversation among politicians, experts, and interested parties. Why? Because a referendum involves two sides competing to convince millions of people to vote for their case. That intense competition amplifies toxicity and intolerance.

The second lesson from Australia is that a referendum is a singularly unsuitable mechanism for addressing complex policy issues. Many voters have neither the time nor the inclination to think about such issues. Accordingly, their decision in a referendum is not the result of thoughtful analysis or real understanding.

A complex proposition also leads advocates on both sides to oversimplify the issues, thereby further undermining the value of the final vote.

Uninformed voters. Oversimplified arguments. That’s no way to formulate important public policy.

That’s why we have parliaments. Through elections, citizens appoint representatives who have the time and resources (and hopefully ability) to investigate and analyse complex issues and then develop good policies. If the citizens don’t like those policies, they can eject their representatives at the next election.

There’s always a role for public debate but public decision making via referenda is only appropriate for simple binary issues like same-sex marriage or legalising marijuana.

Few issues seem less suited to a referendum than Te Tiriti o Waitangi – a nearly 200-year-old contested ‘agreement’ with versions in two languages; a political document that’s been referenced in legislation and subject to judicial and academic commentary for decades. And New Zealand has undergone massive change since the Treaty’s signing, including mass migration, widespread intermarriage, the Treaty settlement process, and development into a modern liberal democracy.

The ‘principles’ of such a document plainly don’t lend themselves to any sensible yes/no vote in a referendum. Therefore, Prime Minister Luxon should stick to his decision not to support a Treaty principles referendum, irrespective of what future polling tells him.

But is other action required?

In a Curia Poll last October, 60% of respondents said they would support ACT’s Treaty principles if asked in a referendum. That suggests considerable discontent with aspects of how the Treaty is currently understood and applied. That discontent contributed to the slump in Labour’s vote at the last election, and the rise of ACT and NZ First (and possibly National).

This is where the third lesson from Australia’s Voice referendum is relevant. That referendum highlighted several fault lines in Australian society. The most obvious was between inner-city residents, who largely favoured an Indigenous Voice, and those from the outer suburbs and regions, who did not. The former are generally wealthier and better educated, and more supportive of progressive causes.

The Voice also received the overwhelming endorsement of Australia’s academic, business, legal, religious, and cultural institutions. Many community leaders, celebrities, and high-profile citizens actively campaigned for a Yes vote.

Despite this high level of institutional and establishment support, the Voice proposition failed 60/40. This outcome, a surprise to many, was seen as evidence of a disconnect between inner city elites and the majority.

Moving forward on indigenous reconciliation in Australia necessitates bridging this disconnect.

Given the cultural similarities between the two countries, it may be that this disconnect or something akin to it exists in New Zealand; that ideas widely accepted in Wellington and the inner suburbs of Auckland are less popular elsewhere.

The Curia Poll and the last election result indicate that many kiwis strongly oppose initiatives like Labour’s co-governance model, a separate Māori Health Authority, and ‘cultural impact assessments’ under the Resource Management Act. Yet many other kiwis (both Māori and non-Māori) believe the Treaty requires such initiatives. Some demand greater self-determination for Māori, insist that ‘sovereignty was never ceded’, and even call for a Māori Parliament.

There’s a stark division here with major implications for the future of New Zealand. It’s not new, but it only achieved its current prominence when the last Labour government implemented a suite of overtly pro-Māori policies.

Co-governance had long existed in various forms from Māori seats in parliament to the co-management of assets such as the Waikato River. However, it had never been the focus of national attention or been seen as part of a broader agenda for Māori self-determination.

The latter reflects ideas and opinions that had been around for many years in places like the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal and NZ’s universities. For example, it was a decade ago that the Tribunal expressed the view that the signatories to the Treaty did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown.

This was unproblematic while these ideas and opinions existed only in ‘theory’ i.e. without specific legislative consequences. It was when Labour sought to put them into ‘practice’ that trouble emerged. The government made the mistake of thinking it could make substantive changes without taking the country, and its own voter base in particular, with it.

The response of the new coalition government is simply to unwind Labour’s pro-Māori policies as quickly as possible but without addressing the underlying clash of views on Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It’s a pragmatic approach, as demonstrated by Luxon’s move to fast track the abolition of the Māori Health Authority before the Waitangi Tribunal has a chance to pass judgement.

There’s real conflict here that’s hard to ignore. And even harder to resolve. However, just kicking the can down the road may be a recipe for greater conflict in the future.

A referendum is clearly not the answer. Nor is leaving the interpretation of the Treaty to the courts. Judicial activism is just as dangerous as a referendum and much less democratic.

Perhaps the government should step up and address the present dilemma. It’s certainly not a role Luxon wants but the outcome of the last election, his choice of coalition partners, and the Pandoras box opened by ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill, may make it difficult to avoid.

Parliament, in consultation with Māoridom and aided by a robust public debate, could undertake a comprehensive review of the role and meaning of the Treaty in the 2020s.

This would be a complex, lengthy, and at times divisive, process. Given history and the entrenched views on all sides, consensus would be impossible.

But for the sake of the country’s future, perhaps it’s time finally to seek some kind of lasting compromise.

*Ross Stitt is a freelance writer with a PhD in political science. He is a New Zealander based in Sydney. His articles are part of our 'Understanding Australia' series.

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The day the Maori health authority was announced as no more, I got the call that my two years on a waiting list for an operation was up. 

There were no new resources for Maori health, just a reshuffling of waiting lists. 


This issue has been kicking round for over 50 years in one form or another. Some might say 150 years but that depends on where you stand. The NZ govt put in place a tribunal process to address the grievances in 1975 & here we are, almost 50 years on, still arguing the toss. The grievance industry has been going on for longer than the misdeeds, or feels like it.

The reality is there was a grievance industry in place long before the Europeans arrived. It was called utu & involved lots of warrior activities, much death & destruction & even slavery. [I won't mention the cannibalism.] This went on for 3-400 years unabated & I can still hear the Moriori screaming from their graves.

Looking forward, however, the answer is simple. We are far too small a nation to be dividing things up by race based determinants. This is how the last 50 years have played out & we have a) the grievers still grieving after so much of this has been put into NZ law & b) the remaining 80% of the population are not very impressed with the current situation or where it's headed - obviously.

The treaty remains a document(s) of many interpretations. It is similar to contract law in that each party will have their own understanding of the contract, & so where differences appear, they are taken to a body of judgement, usually the courts, for a resolution. It is also very common where the ability to agree [or trust] breaks down that each party usually heads off in another direction, which is where we have a real problem here in NZ, both parties are stuck here.

We are all New Zealanders no matter what the colour of your skin is. We are all immigrants of one form or another. Our ancestors arrived by boat & more recently by plane from all over the planet. There must be 200 nationalities here.

It's hard enough to get by with one set of  laws, let alone adding another layer. In fact, as we have seen, it is down-right dangerous. One people. One law. Please.


I think most of those who are arguing grievances these days have no claim to put forward, and it's just easier to jump on the victim bandwagon than accept that maybe the reason they're not successful in life today is their own and nobody else's.


In light of the Aussie result, the elite will have no appetite for referendum. Not that I believe they genuinely support the proposed co-governance, rather that their primary motivation is, as it always was, the optics. So long as they avoid the disdain and criticism of their elitist social circle. As we would all recognize, the greater numbers of the population would not declare a particular opinion simply to curry favour or maintain an image.

As to the widely touted 'view' (opinion) that Maori are indigenous, it follows logically, that in a few short centuries so too will all races that have been here for as long as Maori prior to European arrival. 


Ross Stitt identifies a list of ugly stuff.

"........First, a referendum on a contested issue can be highly acrimonious. And deeply damaging. It creates an environment where public debate frequently descends into public abuse. Polarisation increases and extremism thrives. Misinformation and disinformation from all sides proliferate on social media......"

The problem with Ross's view was we had this ugly stuff before any thought of a referendum.  One of the uglies in my view was that good people had to put their heads done and bear some of the ridiculous claims made by the Maori elite about race matters.  Or lose their jobs.



"Perhaps the government should step up and address the present dilemma. "


That would make a change from decades of appeasement & recent years attempts at engendering an unmandated ethnostate by stealth.


Perhaps the public reaction is to the political desire to create politicised institutions, run by subject matter non-experts, selected by non-democratic means.

Too secret, too opaque, too non-representational, too much aimed at entrenching a technocratic and political class to be stomached by the majority.


Billions and billions spent on Maori.

It's never-ending and it's time it stopped. Maori health, Maori education, Maori kindergartens, Maori prisoner programmes, Maori welfare, Maori schools, Maori housing, Maori scholarships, Maori language funding, Maori-only seats on Councils,  Maori positions on government agencies - ad infinitum.

It's time they took responsibility for themselves and stopped putting their hands out. I've got no problem where there's genuine hardship or injustice, but much of their misfortune is self-inflicted. 


Australia is not the same as NZ and has different and unique issues to solve. Over there they have an actual indigenous population.  Whereas in NZ, everyone is just an immigrant of some (often mixed) flavour.  


This article reads,

  1. Making decisions through public consent is divisive - so don’t do it
  2. People aren’t educated enough to make such decisions - so shouldn’t be asked 
  3. Wealthier people are more educated so are therefore more progressive - and are better able to make big decisions 

To name a few problems with this line of thinking, first problem is already every few years we hold national elections that are fairly decisive, second problem is the people are voting over subjects even the most “educated” people know little about, and the third problem is the most insidious, thinking because someone has wealth enough to afford the leisure time to wax philosophical more frequently and read the horse s**t socio-economic literature spewing from well meaning but poorly conducted university “research” therefore makes them wiser and better able to make long term decisions with generational horizons on extremely complex problems that effect millions.

I don’t like democracy as much as the next person with more than two brain cells, but what truly terrifies me is the idea we should ignore the public and leave decisions to a few of the “right people”. 

Maybe I’m just not educated enough… or wealthy enough 😭


I think Maori have been failed by their own leaders  and that settlements made equate to a token payment...there I've said it...feel free to roll out a few Don Brash Orewa 

Expecting a 16% minority indigenous population to get a fair shake from the 84%  'other' , I guess would warm the hearts of that majority. But things could get ugly very quickly  and that is a concern because how does a 16% minority hold its ground against the majority?  I certainly wouldnt be in a hurry to start undoing all the progress made in the last 50 years.... Do we want to end up looking like Ireland during its troubled times? 




How have Maori not had a "fair shake"?


Settlement payments around 5 - 10% of actual losses ....Tribal structures that embrace investment in corporate concepts as opposed to housing (retirement villages/shopping malls) , poor investment (high risk investments) resulting in substantial losses  ... trickle down for many on the street ( and that trickle has not happened for many)  .... Land holdings that require over 80% consent to break out of (regulatory constraints / freehold shares) Land holdings that are controlled by the MLC and its desire to maintain the last 5% when such holdings were issued Freehold... (Ideology / nothing freehold about them today) .... 'Individuality' is certainly frowned upon (constraint) and its strangely enough often by those whose 'Whanau' already sold out.... Native land reserves that are viewed as public property.... plenty to list...but will stop...  This is not too say that Maori are not capable of succeeding as individuals but for some the  ability to 'maximise' is constrained by tribal values that have hijacked what was once freehold. IE... So if I have an interest in a Maori land block and have sufficient capital to develop that interest ...I would be an idiot to take on the MLC .... in this sense it is Maoridom itself that limits its own members abilities. 



Many of their poor investments are their responsibility, no one else's.

I would say the billions they've received over the years more than compensate for their losses, they get special treatment anyway you look at it. NZers rioted over Apartheid, and now it's debatable whether it's not happening here. 

Why are they so disadvantaged? What about personal responsibility? I stopped off in Tokoroa a few months ago around 8 in the morning. Outside McDonalds were a group of very obese Maori drinking lemonade, coke and raspberry fizzy drinks. They're always looking for the next handout. Many years ago, Taranaki Maori wanted to charge Air NZ for flying through 'Maori airspace'.

Why is it other races settle in NZ and make successes of themselves, but Maori need endless support?

How long are working kiwis expected to keep paying taxes to support Maori? Another 50 years, 100 years? 



Thats funny because I am sure other New Zealanders probably do the same... McDonalds is a very popular chain .... I think many New Zealanders have this idea that Maori are all lazy and useless...but unfortunately there are some that are very successful and driven . I will watch with interest the next few years and likely nothing good will come of any of it... PM Luxon has likely figured that out by now... 


I will say this , I do respect David Seymour  as I do the process.... and that is why NZ is a great country...


Ross appears to suffer the academics' ongoing problems....a complete misunderstanding of the advantage of democracy and a superiority complex.

No society can function if the majority of its members do not subscribe to its basic tenets...right or wrong.

Nor can they successfully function when they discriminate on so obvious a basis as aint rocket science.

Indeed it political 'science' isnt science at is opinion.


We will see how well that society functions if  lines get   Plenty of folk ready to back the democracy ....but what happens when they meet the folk chanting...'Honor the Treaty'  Not sure why anyone with an ounce of logic would want to roll back the clock ....but maybe folk have poor memory recall  Might boost TVNZ ratings


"We will see how well that society functions if  lines get crossed."

Society will not.....and what constitutes a crossed line is not determined by academics, politicians or radical minorities.