The Treaty: an instrument of unity or of division?

The Treaty of Waitangi signifies for some the establishment of a nation of “one people”, under one set of laws. It signifies for others the entrenchment of anterior Maori indigenous rights.

Bill English has put National unequivocally in the first camp. That was the purpose of his forthright — and to Maori offensive — speech two weeks ago. It will destroy the fragile Maori renaissance in his party but will please his core conservative vote.

The Greens’ instincts take them into the second camp, where they must be if they are to occupy the space on Treaty issues the Alliance used to.

The government is uneasily trying to be in neither camp — and both. As it must, if it is to navigate these rapids.

At the centre of the division the Treaty has come to symbolise for many is the claim of indigenous rights — the superior rights of tangata whenua, the people of the land, which they say later comers can never assert.

Historically, invaders have dismissed such claims and squeezed out or squashed incumbents. The British did it here. That is why the Treaty was revived in 1975 as an instrument of redress.

It’s a numbers game. The whites lost in South Africa to larger numbers. Here right now neither side can win yet: the “one people” line commands the majority but the minority is now too numerous and assertive.

This game can be played at several levels.

It can be played philosophically. Southland-born internationally acclaimed jurist Jeremy Waldron, in a lecture in Wellington in November, used ruthless logic to dismantle the first-comer principle of indigenous property rights as “inherently objectionable and historically indefensible” — though he also allowed a mystical dimension, “towards which the appropriate response is humility”.

English chose an ideological version of the game for his speech. He pushed the rule of law and representative democracy. Those taking this line rest their case on article 3 (conferring British subjecthood) and article 1’s cession of sovereignty to the British Crown.

There are several Maori ideological versions. One is that the Treaty, as a compact, guarantees at least a parallel place in decision-making. Another claims as a minimum an inviolable right to run matters for Maori, including state assistance, in a Maori way and in line with Maori objectives, without government veto.

These ideologies are based on article 2’s guarantee of tino rangatiranga and rest heavily on Maori tradition — a tradition foreign to English’s rule of law and representative democracy.

There is, third, a class argument. Large numbers of Maori have not got, and are unlikely to get, anything out of Treaty settlements. This is Winston Peters’ line and it got him 15 per cent of the party vote in the Maori electorates last year.

Labour used to see Maori this way, as an underclass, one segment of the disadvantaged. But now Labour has two conflicting needs: to keep onside its core vote, most of which is not Maori and has instincts closer to English’s; and to satisfy voters in the Maori electorates, which return MPs increasingly inclined to one or other of the Maori ideological positions.

The Prime Minister ducks this conflict by emphasising settlement of injustices and lifting Maori economic performance. This is classic Helen Clark: practical, not philosophical and most definitely not mystical.

But her government has done more than that. It has extended Maori consultation rights, which give more weight in public life to whanau and spiritual and cultural claims. This is bicultural — two equal cultures — and enters a realm of ideology whither her core vote can’t readily follow.

On the other hand, English’s ideological stance will deny him the Maori votes he once said National needs for sustained periods of office. The numbers are brutal on that point. The only — and unconvincing — answer from National is that Peters will supply the brown vote.

English’s position is multicultural: Maori culture, while special, is a just a minority culture.

Who is uniting and who is dividing? Clark is magnifying difference. English is minimising it. On the face of it, English’s Treaty is an instrument of unity and Clark’s an instrument of division.

But there is no unity in a nation that contains a large and growing disgruntled or detached minority. We have lost forever the simple unity of 30 years ago.

One path to a different sort of unity is indicated in the report on the Maori economy today in the Business Herald. Maori may be doing poorly in the general economy but the Maori economy is doing fine.

Separatist? The Institute of Economic Research which wrote the report is not exactly soft left. Hard-headed, more like.

Which is where unity lies — amid difference. The challenge for the Prime Minister in her speeches on Waitangi Day on Thursday is to reconcile the two Treaties, the unifying one and the dividing one.

And that requires her to be both hard-headed and visionary. She can do the first. Can she do the second?