Time for some markers in the Treaty road ahead

Three canyons cut through the political landscape between National and Labour.

One is in the workplace. Labour sees wages and conditions (including safety) as the sustenance of workers and their families. National sees them as a cost to business.

The second is in foreign policy. For 65 years Labour has leaned more to multilateral processes and resorted to alliances as temporary second bests. National has always put more faith in alliances and has at times been deeply sceptical of the United Nations. Iraq sharply delineated that ideological ravine.

The third divider is indigenous rights, the Treaty of Waitangi.

National wants the Treaty leg-roped. Bill English was back at it at Easter, raking up “article 4” shock-horror stories. He wants “one citizenship”, everyone in the same tent. That is non-too-veiled code for “you can have your kapa haka and even your own health care clinics but no bigger share of power and influence than one-vote-one-person gives you”.

Boiled down, this approach sees the Treaty as a mechanism to settle historical disputes and grievances but not as a living guide to arranging this society and its power structures. Just get the grievances finished and then get on with being the way we were when we were being British.

There is another, more subtle, dimension. English presents his one-citizenship line as an opening bid from the non-Maori side on what the Treaty should mean now. But it is a bid that will elicit no counter-bid because essentially it wishes the Treaty away.

Labour sees the Treaty as here to stay, an ineradicable fact of public life we must live with and make the best of.

Until recently, Labour looked to be drifting, blown by Treaty winds it could not predict nor tame, at the mercy of media stories which present a claim as tantamount to success and one Maori’s assertion as a whole tribe’s.

But this year Michael Cullen has got in the act.

At Labour’s annual MPs strategy meeting in February the Deputy Prime Minister made what other MPs said was a very impressive contribution. He would not talk about it publicly then but on April 5 he did, in a little-noticed speech to a regional Labour party conference, which he repeated to another such conference on Sunday.

The importance of that speech is that Cullen gave it. Cullen is a big force in this government. Nothing big moves without him. He gets thrown the really tough or politically hot conundrums to solve: Air New Zealand, leaky homes, infrastructure, electricity.

His initial step has been to state some firm founding statements from the government.

* In interpreting the Treaty, the Maori-language version takes precedence. That is well established in other jurisdictions, including the United States and Canada.

* While Maori could not be said to have intended to cede sovereignty (the word “mana” would have been used in the Treaty if so), the Crown asssumed sovereignty and has exercised it, “unbroken and largely unchallenged, ever since”. It is impossible to unscramble that egg now.

* All article 3, on which English bases much of his case, did was to accord Maori the same protections British citizens had. It does not modify the rights protected under article 2, “which is what the Crown signed up to in 1840 and which still is our law”.

* Article 2 protects more than a “list of possessions”. It protects taonga, which Cullen translates as “treasures”. “That makes the Treaty a living document where new applications or implications may arise as circumstances change.”

* Taonga include wahi tapu (sacred places) — concern about which mirrors that in the 1970s over the Wellington city motorway slicing through the Bolton Street cemetery — and the Maori language (though not the English language, which the Treaty does not protect) but do not include the airwaves.

* There will never be “black-letter-law certainty”. What is in and what is out will be decided case-by-case by discussion. “Not all traditional practices are taonga,” he said in an interview before Easter, instancing the attempt in March by one Maori to have women banned from a hospital building, an attempt slapped down by other Maori. But it does mean sometimes inserting into legislation a reference to taking into account the Treaty’s principles (though the courts would probably rule that anyway).

So there you have a road map of sorts. The problem for the government is that the markers are blurry and the public can’t see where it leads. That spells high political risk for Labour, especially since some of the least informed and least tolerant are to be found among its core vote.

Cullen acknowledges the risk. His response is that three years hence there will be much more “case law” and so more visible road markers — “some feelings that there are limits” — which will reduce uncertainty. He is also stumping up money in the Budget for better public information on the Treaty.

Will that work? Who knows? But now that Cullen is involved the odds of success are higher.