He Puapua: The Indigenous peoples report that caused a NZ political ruckus

A report designed to respond to the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples is causing controversy here in Aotearoa. But what does He Puapua actually say?

In 2019 a government working group was tasked with creating a plan to realise the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP) here in New Zealand. The resulting report, He Puapua, has been described as a roadmap to achieving Vision 2040, the year by which it hopes the report’s objectives are achieved. The year 2040 also marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The reason for all the fuss is the perceived obfuscation of the report – despite being received by then minister for Māori Development, Nanaia Mahuta, in 2019, it hasn’t been released by cabinet and is only circulating now after it was released under OIA last month. Since then, National Party leader Judith Collins has used it to stoke fears over separatism, claiming it will create “two systems by stealth”.

But what is the report, and why all the controversy?

First of all, what’s the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples?

The UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples – UNDRIP – recognises the rights of Indigenous people to self-determination, to maintain their own languages and cultures, to protect their natural and cultural heritage and manage their own affairs.

It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. A total of 143 countries voted in favour, but New Zealand was one of four countries that voted against, alongside the US, Canada and Australia. At the time, the Labour government claimed the declaration was incompatible with New Zealand’s constitutional and legal systems, and Treaty settlement policy.

In 2010, after sustained pressure from the Māori Party, the National government agreed to signing the declaration, rationalising that because it’s non-binding, it couldn’t undermine any New Zealand policy or legislation. The then Māori Party co-leader and minister of Māori affairs, Pita Sharples, travelled to New York to sign on Aotearoa’s behalf. Canada and Australia have also since reversed their position.

And what’s He Puapua, exactly?

He Puapua is a term that refers to the break between waves, evoking a disruption to our political and legislative norms. It’s also the name of the report from the working group that looked at how Aotearoa should implement the UN declaration. He Puapua is divided into five thematic areas: self-determination; participation in kāwanatanga Karauna; lands territories and resources; culture; and equity and fairness.

At one point it states: “Based on evidence, we would expect Māori wellbeing to improve as our authority over our lives increases” but that Māori participation in governance is “ad hoc”. The success of  Whānau Ora certainly bears that out, but so far Māori-led services and initiatives have been too underfunded and under-resourced for true success under tino rangatiratanga to be properly measured.

The report makes reference to a number of existing strategies and documents, such as Te Pae Tawhiti, the Ministry for Social Development’s strategic plan for strengthening equity and economic wellbeing, Matike Mai, the 2016 report on constitutional transformation, and landmark Treaty claims such as Wai 262.

It goes on to recommend, among other things, a Māori court system, health system, upper house or parliament; Māori wards and the protection of Māori seats in parliament; compulsory te reo Māori and New Zealand history in schools; joint governance bodies across all government agencies; and strengthening the legal recognition of Te Tiriti o Waitangi by putting it into law. Using the FPIC principle, it also recommends greater rights for Māori in areas such as fisheries and the RMA, and it recommends that Māori co-design and/or co-govern all Māori services.

Who wrote He Puapua?

The declaration working group (DWG) that authored the report, commissioned by cabinet in 2019, consists of a number of law and policy heavy hitters: Claire Charters, Kayla Kingdon-Bebb, Tamati Olsen, Waimirirangi Ormsby, Emily Owen, Judith Pryor, Jacinta Ruru, Naomi Solomon and Gary Williams.

Their combined expertise includes Indigenous rights; Treaty and constitutional law; Māori-Crown relations; conservation, economic, justice and housing policy; human rights and environmental activism; governance in iwi, hapū, disability and NGO sectors; and te reo me ona tikanga.

So what’s all the fuss about then?

Words like “separatist”, “segregation” and “divisive” have been bandied about by Act and the National Party in regards to He Puapua. A couple of over-excited media commentators even called it “the end of democracy as we know it”. Considering the number of Māori advisory papers that have languished in obscurity after suggesting similar, and even more radical, measures this seems like quite an over-reaction.

But isn’t, say, two health systems kind of ‘separatist’?

Under article two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori were (in the English version) guaranteed “exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties”. In the te reo Māori version, they were guaranteed “te tino rangatiratanga” or the unqualified exercise of their chieftainship over their lands, villages, and all their property and treasures.

Continued breaches of Te Tiriti over the past 170 years have in fact already created separate health and justice systems, as well as drastically different outcomes in wellbeing and economic security for Māori. Institutional racism and widespread ignorance of the history of colonisation in Aoteroa has ensured that those inequities have stayed embedded in policy and our legal systems, in every area of life. Ignoring Indigenous approaches to kaitiakitanga of natural resources has also dangerously degraded our lands and waterways.

The idea that any of that might change by continuing with the status quo can be summed up by the whakatāuki: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

So what happens next?

A Māori health authority was already announced last month, along with other sweeping reforms, following a series of recommendations from the health and disability system review released last year.

The DWG has called He Puapua “the first step” towards a declaration plan. It recommends establishing a governance group and secretariat responsible for guiding the plan towards 2040.

The report has not been signed off by cabinet, however. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern only responded yesterday to the issue, and ruled out a Māori parliament but declined to comment on any other recommendations, as it hadn’t yet gone before cabinet.

Despite the fuss, He Puapua may yet be forgotten and consigned to history, like so many recommendations before it.




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