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PoliticsJanuary 24, 2024

Luxon walks a race relations tightrope as he heads to Rātana

Tfw adding up girl maths (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Tfw adding up girl maths (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

As he prepares to speak at the annual Rātana commemorations today, the prime minister is being challenged to reaffirm the Crown-Māori relationship. 

Christopher Luxon was juggling dual hats as prime minister and National Party leader yesterday as questions around race relations look to dominate the start of the political year. 

Cabinet regrouped for the first time in 2024 yesterday, where it agreed to deploy members of the NZ Defence Force into the Middle Eastern conflict.

But closer to home, the government has been forced to address ongoing concerns from Māori around its contentious coalition commitment to examine the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. 

The coalition agreement between National and Act contained a pledge to take a proposed Treaty Principles Bill to select committee, but no further. That appeared to shut the door on Act’s election campaign dream of a referendum, but it has not stopped questions about the government’s intentions in this space.

Earlier in the week, for example, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer labelled the government “anti-Māori” and said it was “displaying all the traits of typical white supremacists”. (Luxon rejected these comments, calling them offensive and inappropriate).

And over the weekend, thousands converged on Tūrangawaewae for a hui called to discuss aspects of the government’s agenda.

Speaking at a post-cabinet press conference yesterday afternoon, Luxon, who clarified he was speaking as National Party leader, reiterated his view that any referendum on the Treaty would be “divisive and unhelpful”.

But donning his prime ministerial hat, Luxon maintained that the planned bill would make it to select committee in order for the issues to be “aerated” and discussed in depth. He would not rule out supporting the bill beyond its first reading, nor was he prepared to stake his job on this.

Senior Labour MP and former minister Willie Jackson said the government had forced race relations to be top of the political agenda in 2024.

“They’ve put it at the forefront because you have a senior minister in [David] Seymour who wants to destroy the historical rights that Māori have enjoyed in this country,” Jackson told The Spinoff. 

“If [Luxon] wants to allay things… [the government has] to make it very, very clear that there is a special relationship with the Crown and Māori. They need to reconfirm that, because that’s being questioned by Seymour.”

David seymour, a light-skinned man in a grey suit with a pink tie stands in front of a microphoone and the blue, yellow, and pink ACT logo
Act leader David Seymour

Earlier this week, Seymour said he did not consider Te Tiriti as a partnership between Māori and the Crown, saying this view was “a misinterpretation that has grown out of the Lands decision nearly 40 years ago now”.

“I think it’s important to recognise that we’re not actually in the 1970s,” Seymour told RNZ’s Midday Report. “New Zealand is a modern, multi-ethnic liberal democratic state with people from all different types of backgrounds and all different characteristics, many of which have actually got nothing to do with their race.”

Partnership is one of the core Treaty principles. These have been developed by the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal over decades so te Tiriti can be applied in a context relevant to the Crown and Māori in the present day. The differences in wording of the English text and the Māori text – for example Māori ceded “sovereignty” in the English version, but only “kawanatanga” or “governorship” in the Māori version (the one actually signed by the vast majority of Māori), while retaining “tino rangatiratanga” – was a primary reason for the development of the principles.

Jackson said Māori needed reassurance of the importance of the relationship with the government. “They have to rein in Seymour. He is challenging and infuriating many of our people, he keeps talking about ‘we need to have a debate’. We’ve been having this debate for years,” said Jackson.

Willie Jackson (Photo: Dom Thomas/RNZ)

Barrister Roimata Smail, author of Understanding Te Tiriti: A Handbook of Basic Facts about Te Tiriti o Waitangi, told The Spinoff that she believed the government needed to “put energy” towards honouring tino rangatiratanga rather than continuing to promote amending the principles.

“Māori discovered Aotearoa, owned all the land and had tino rangatiratanga over their own lives. Te Tiriti o Waitangi reflected and promised to preserve this,” she said.

“In it Māori only agreed to give Britain the first right to buy land they wanted to sell. But the English version, ‘the Treaty’ did not match what was agreed: the Crown asserted sovereignty, power to make laws over everyone, including Māori.”

The principles were a modern creation of the Crown and courts, Smail said, to try to reconcile the two versions of the Treaty.

Luxon will be attending Rātana commemorations today where he will be speaking as prime minister, not National Party leader.  “I think that’s really important,” said Luxon. He expected to be confronted on issues and believed this was a good thing, he said, adding that it would be a “big problem” if everyone in New Zealand held the exact same view on matters.

His speech would address issues around Māori health and education outcomes, Luxon said. “I want to see Māori thriving in this country, I want to see non-Māori thriving in this country. Under the last six years, Māori went backwards. We want Māori going forward.”

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