The PM ‘can’t be any clearer’ about his stance on our founding document, so why is everyone still so confused? Hayden Donnell tries to get to the bottom of the matter.
Chris Luxon was at his wit’s end. For months he’d been trying to explain his party’s position on Act’s attempts to redefine the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, and people still didn’t seem to be getting it. He was meant to be speaking about his move to dump Auckland’s regional fuel tax, but once again reporters were quizzing him on our founding document. “Can you just be really clear about the language?” a reporter pleaded. “Really clear about what National’s position is?”
Luxon’s laugh sounded like dust being displaced by a grave. His mouth smiled but his eyes were hollow. He kept repeating the same thing. “What I just say to you is I can’t be any clearer,” he said. “I think I have been pretty clear.”
Words were his problem. Words piled upon words. Luxon has been speaking about David Seymour’s efforts to force a referendum on the Treaty for the better part of two years. The more he explains, the more people get confused. His statements have become a tangled slinky, each new sentence adding another kink to the snarled-up mess on his political lounge floor. The only way to find his position now is to go back to the start, and unravel his explanations one by one.
February, 2022: I am not ruling Act’s Treaty of Waitangi policy in or out
When asked about Act’s efforts to remove any reference to the Treaty of Waitangi from legislation, Luxon’s position was firm: any policy that might emerge from coalition talks was “hypothetical” and he wouldn’t speak on hypotheticals.
When asked about Act’s plans to orchestrate a referendum on co-governance, Luxon’s position was firm: he would speak on hypotheticals, and a referendum was unhelpful and unneeded.
March 30, 2022: But I am not actually ruling out Act’s Treaty of Waitangi policy
On RNZ the following morning, Luxon clarified: the country isn’t ready for an unhelpful and unneeded Treaty referendum right now, but it might be keen for one in future. After this flurry of proclamations, he entered a lengthy period of contemplation, reemerging the following year.
August 22, 2023: We do not support a referendum on the Treaty
In the leadup to the 2023 general election, reporters repeatedly interrogated Luxon’s position on Act’s call for a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi. “I’m saying to you that [redefining treaty principles] is something that’s not our policy and we don’t support it,” he told RNZ in August.
September 20, 2023: I will not rule out a referendum on the Treaty
A month after saying National doesn’t support Act’s Treaty referendum policy, Luxon refused to rule out adopting Act’s Treaty referendum policy. “I appreciate you want to get into it. I am not negotiating a coalition agreement with the media this side of an election,” he told reporters.
October 2, 2023: We do not support a referendum on the Treaty
Speaking to Julian Wilcox on The Hui, Luxon said a referendum on the Treaty would be divisive and he wouldn’t support one.
October 16: I will not rule out a referendum on the Treaty
But never say never.
November 24, 2023: We don’t support a divisive and unhelpful effort to redefine the Treaty but I will support legislation aimed at redefining the Treaty to at least first reading
After more than a month of coalition negotiations, Luxon combined his two positions on redefining the Treaty into a kind of legislative Frankenstein’s monster, in a desperate effort to form a government. That’s MMP for you.
December 7, 2023: We will not support Act’s Treaty Principles Bill past first reading
As protest mounted against Act’s effort to redefine the Treaty, Luxon refused to rule out supporting the legislation past first reading. That didn’t satisfy critics, including in the media, who accused National of being humiliated and bossed around by its junior coalition partners.
During a testy debate in the House in December, Luxon got back on the front foot. He was unequivocal: the Treaty Principles Bill will fail at first reading. “That’s as far as it will go,” he said.
February 7, 2024: We won’t back the Treaty Principles Bill past first reading
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 14 times in a row, things are getting weird. But this time Luxon really did seem definitive. “We are not supporting it beyond first reading,” Luxon told AM. “We will not be supporting that bill.” There’s definitely “no wriggle room” there, said Newshub’s Jenna Lynch. Luxon would go on to tell Te Karere “the Treaty is not changing”. “The Treaty is to be respected. It’s our foundational document. It’s sacrosanct. And it’s not for changing,” he said.
February 8, 2024: I won’t rule out backing the Treaty Principles Bill past first reading
When quizzed by reporters again on his commitment to shooting down the bill at first reading the following day, Luxon retreated into familiar, more equivocal language. He said there was “no commitment, no intention” to support the bill into law. “What I just say to you is, I can’t be any clearer: myself, the National Party, my National Party caucus do not want to support it.”
A harmonisation of the relevant data shows Luxon his right. His party’s position on the subject of Act’s efforts to redefine the Treaty is clear: National believes an effort to redefine the Treaty is divisive, unhelpful, and a central part of its coalition deal with Act. It can’t rule out supporting Act’s Treaty Principles Bill, which it doesn’t support. Rest assured, the bill will fail unless it doesn’t. The Treaty is not changing. It’s sacrosanct. Our foundational document. But it could also be redefined to appease a party that won 8.64% of the vote in the October general election.
That’s as clear as the text of the English-language version of the Treaty at Te Papa. Journalists could’ve saved themselves a great deal of confusion by just crunching the data like The Spinoff.
At the press conference on Thursday though, Stuff’s Tova O’Brien had other ideas. “You could actually be clearer,” she told Luxon as he once again asserted the simplicity of National’s position. “You could say under no circumstances whatsoever will we be supporting this bill.”
Luxon sounded exasperated at the idea. “I think I’ve told you our position,” he retorted. And he has, over and over again, in a kaleidoscope of contradictory information. The conference ended with Luxon reaffirming that he doesn’t support the Treaty bill, and refusing to resign if it passed.