Finding a new way through the Treaty for National

This is a tale of two conservatives, a jailbird and a radical — and a challenge for Don Brash’s white, male, provincialised National party.

First up is the late Bruce Jesson, who for decades, as a journalist and political activist, eloquently made the case for marxist socialism. A book of his writings is launched today.

The marxist prescription was once a radical position and some still think it so. But, viewed from 2005, Jesson, though innovative in applying marxist analysis, comes across as deeply conservative, dismayed at the march of market forces across his beloved nation. In an article in New Left Review in 1992 not included in the collection, he mused that the newly formed Alliance “could become a major force”. It got 0.07 per cent last month.

Enter the jailbird. Donna Awatere (as she then was) first won fame advocating “Maori sovereignty”. This was a challenge to marxists, liberals and traditional conservatives alike, for it cut across class, individualistic democracy and the established order — but Jesson divined a marxist frame for it in French writings.

Awatere went on to make a lot of money, with former National party president Sue Wood, schooling public servants and others in Treaty matters. More recently, Huata-hyphenated, she made her money in other ways. Rules were made for other people. She is no conservative.

A man who is conservative — in his own words, a “modern conservative” — is Bill English. He draws also on the thinking of two other 40-something modern conservatives, Simon Upton and Bernard Cadogan, one of this country’s most restless and interesting minds.

English’s Robert Chapman lecture last night (which Upton was originally asked to deliver) focused on what he calls “Treatyology” and the challenge of ethnic diversity, which he illustrated by reference to his “Samoan-Italian-pakeha” son’s school class in which there are only three obviously “European” names.

English’s “Treatyology” is “public doctrine and public policy that … asserts that the Treaty of Waitangi underpins a contemporary constitutional partnership between Maori and the Crown or its agents and that this partnership will continue to develop towards a bifurcated state.” It implies, he says, that “citizenship can and should be divided” but the public rejects that ” because our political history is a history of overcoming religious and tribal divisions and the struggle to form a democratic citizenship”.

“Our” history includes a shared British history, English insists, going back 350 years ago to “when people struggled and killed for what we now take for granted — one citizenship under a constrained constitutional monarch”. And in our shared history here since 1840 the Treaty is only one source of cohesion. “Our respective traditions and our growing shared traditions represent a far wider, stronger foundation.”

English imagines a New Zealand “where peopleďż˝s culture and beliefs are respected, where the state concedes communities other than the state can provide education better than the state and where the state promotes and respects choices.

“In such a world Maori do not need the Treaty to get what they want. They need the same tools as other citizens.” So “Maori and non-Maori have a common interest in working out their right relationship to the state to achieve … education, work and intact families [which] are the recipe for social and cultural success.”

English also urges a shift of focus in our ethnic debate from rights to development. That will require a different language from the “blame, debt, separation and guilt” driving Treaty settlements. “A new language must be built on this foundation of justice we have painfully dug into these soils.”

Contrast Brash, the radical in this tale.

One of the clinchers of his election loss after both sides thought National was ahead a week out might well have been his campaign restatement of his uncompromising Treaty line. That line accords little weight to our “shared history” and our diversifying demography. In the week before the election Labour reported a firming of its brown, notably Pacific island, vote and a stream of late registrations in reaction to Brash. English would not have stirred that.

Nowhere in his lecture does English directly criticise Brash. But his much more carefully shaded analysis will resonate with those MPs, including some very senior (white) MPs, who have bitten their tongues since Orewa I, and two new (white) MPs deeply at odds with Brash’s line. English the “modern conservative” is closer to the party’s soul.

His line isn’t limp-wristed liberalism. The time for that is past. Watch Helen Clark now jettison the sentimentality that has underlain much Treaty policy, confusion and resentment.

But English’s approach requires we learn from history and National to understand that only a supple and subtle government can run long in a conservative society. Jesson, who never let theory obscure facts, would have (sadly) agreed.