Who belongs here and how deeply?

The issue at the heart of John Key’s all-and-nothing sign-up to the United Nations declaration on indigenous rights is who belongs here and how deeply they belong.

That is important because if too many people in a country feel they don’t belong, the economy and society — not to mention the politics — will be suboptimal or worse.

From around 1860 to around 1985 Maori were made to feel they didn’t belong because to belong meant being British. Too many Maori still feel that way. That is one root of the flourishing jungle of gangs and drifting youth in our worst-off suburbs.

That has been a common experience of minorities in countries which were taken over and dominated by another people. Japan’s Ainu are an example, Canada’s Inuit another. Some call them “first nations” — those who were there first. There are such “first nations” throughout the Americas and in scores of other countries.

Almost all “first nations” have had little recognition or respect and little prospect of it, despite their countries’ governments’ signatures on the declaration. China flatly denies it has indigenous people. Tibetans, Uighurs and others in China have a different view.

Here we have been going through a truth-and-reconciliation process that has no precedent or external model. The Treaty of Waitangi and the rights embedded in it have been taken seriously by politicians and the courts — not perfectly, as Hone Harawira would require, but to a degree near-unimaginable 25 years ago.

With whanau ora, an all-and-nothing foreshore-seabed jig and Pita Sharples’ subterfuge gig in New York — and a constitutional review still to come — Key has been adding symbols, and some substance, to what Sir Geoffrey Palmer started, Jim Bolger continued and Michael Cullen pushed on.

Cullen could not do Key’s foreshore-seabed in 2004 because the National party of the time played to majority prejudice. Cullen could not sign his government up to the declaration because National would have run Rodney Hide’s “one-law” line. Key’s grand gestures are out-of-character with his party — except for the fact that they are effective short-term pragmatic politics.

Key thereby locks in the Maori party — even Harawira (who thinks the sign-up is “without caveat”, though Key’s qualifications enabled him to say nothing much changes). Failing a political earthquake, Key has also locked the Labour party out of a deal with the Maori party after the next election.

But then what?

What can Key offer the Maori party for a deal after the 2011 election? It votes against more of the government’s contentious social and economic legislation than it supports. Key is running out of big symbolic all-and-nothing gestures. He may have some room to move on the constitution but that would be playing with fire.

Moreover, Key has now made it official policy that the only people who can be “indigenous” — that is, be “native” here, belong here by right of birth — are those who have some Maori ancestry.

Claiming first-nation status has been valuable to Maori — and to the nation. Without the truth-and-reconciliation process of the past 25 years, we would have become increasingly divided and tense.

Don Brash got it 180 degrees wrong: he said truth-and-reconciliation was dividing us when actually it was uniting us. It is instructive that he — now one of Key’s old-age pensioners — has recanted. (As his early Presbyterian liberalism would logically have led him to do.)

But what does Key tell someone whose ancestors have been here seven generations (six more than he has)? That they are late arrivals? That they do not truly belong here?

Go out another three generations. Someone who is one-five-hundred-and-twelfth Maori will have special indigenous status even if that person’s other parent is an immigrant. Someone whose ancestors have been here 10 generations will not deeply belong.

That offends commonsense. On Waitangi Day Key implicitly acknowledged as much when he carefully used the “first-nation” formula, implying indigeneity is a chronological matter, not something deeper.

And if being indigenous is simply a matter of chronology, it counts for little. Conquest and occupation — the way Ngati Whatua became tangata whenua of Tamaki Makauru — can readily establish who belongs. Otherwise Britain might be trying now, under the declaration, to respond to demands by descendants of the Angles and Saxons or even earlier occupants of the pluvial isles.

Key is genuine. He is a uniting, not a dividing, Prime Minister. His instincts are positive and his actions well-meant. His all-and-nothing gestures are not Machiavellian. They are intended to unite and by and large they do.

But for his place in history he might start to think about longer-term implications of these all-and-nothing gestures. For the nation he aims to unite, belonging is critical.