Waitangi Day coming: a time to wave flags

It’s Waitangi Day on Sunday, a day to fly the Maori flag. Political parties have been flag-waving already.

Phil Goff is waving a pink flag: a “tax-free zone” for low incomes (which, by the way, is a gift to part-time second-earners in well-off households). John Key says we can’t afford it, though last year he, and we, afforded big tax cuts, out of which the well-off have done very well.

Goff could quote tax experts, some on the tax working group, who say almost every other country has a tax-free zone. Others add that he could do a capital gains tax — that is, a tax on income from rises in prices of assets — to help pay for it. Goff still won’t go there because he thinks it is a red-flag issue, even though few of his core voters would pay it. Nor, yet, will Goff do a land tax, though it is a red flag to National voters.

Key is waving a “saving” flag, needed, he says, for economic salvation. Much is to come on that front, including some measures that will cost the government money. Half-flagged last year is an inflation allowance for tax on personal income from interest.

Key is waving a blue “sell” flag, too: make four state-owned enterprises private companies and sell minority shares — especially to iwi — to widen the range of reliable shares available to small investors (still numerous on long-ago privatised Contact Energy’s share book) and to release capital for other state asset investment.

Goff says that is the old sell-to-National-mates story, which 10 years ago was red-flag territory. But that red has since faded.

For some the big red flag right now is the bill to replace the foreshore and seabed law, due out from the Maori affairs select committee on February 25. The government thinks it is not a red flag, that ACT and mates are fanning fears of widespread iwi lockouts from beaches. Ministers say the bill changes little and once it is passed and people can still lie on beaches, emotions will cool and votes settle back on to National’s ledger.

But are the 10 months to election day enough time for voters to get a clear understanding from events, not assertions, of how little iwi might get in negotiations and the courts and of the public access protections?

The bill is a red flag to some on the other side. The Maori party is trying to impeach Hone Harawira, who, by running as a maverick, risks discovering there is more to representative democracy than representing constituents. But he can cite a range of iwi leaders, including big ones, who say the bill’s criteria extinguish hope of customary title for nearly all iwi.

That strands the Maori party leaders in fallback-land: take what’s on offer and try again later. But this is not as limp as it looks, if the past 30 years history of Treaty of Waitangi policy creep is a guide to the future.

It is at least conceivable that a future cabinet could ease the interpretation of the bill’s criteria in negotiations or that a court could suddenly discover an iwi-friendly doctrine, as in 1987 and 2003 — just as a future court or cabinet might take more seriously the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples than the government did last year by affixing heavy qualifications to its signature last year. Treaty flexibility has been unidirectional so far.

Another red flag: freshwater. Iwi claim a special, spiritual, relationship with lakes, rivers and streams as life-forces and economic infrastructure.

Michael Cullen, who did a foreshore deal with Ngati Porou that gave more than a court would likely have granted, also signed heads of agreement with Waikato River iwi for co-governance and co-management, a deal Chris Finlayson has refined. There is now a presumption of co-governance and/or co-management of waterways with local authorities as part of Treaty restitution deals.

That is constitutional change. There may be more to come.

As part of the constitutional review agreed with National, the Maori party wants to elevate the Treaty from a constitutional optional extra to an instrument with formal constitutional force. That is potentially a political and legal minefield. National has kicked for touch for now, with only procedural matters be set this year and substantive talks put off till after the election.

Against this large backdrop Key’s choice for Governor-General is small constitutional beer. (He could do worse than Jim McLay, once Deputy Prime Minister, now Ambassador to the United Nations.)

It will be a talking point on Sunday. But what Waitangi Day now bears witness to, amidst the waving of flags of many sorts, is far bigger: not a founding event ritually recalled but real change in day-to-day policy and political life, the fusing of the Treaty and nationhood.

So the Maori flag, selected by Harawira, flying alongside the tired Union Jack-and-Southern Cross on Sunday, is more than a sop to Maori sentiment. It signifies the evolution of a nation, one very different from 30 years ago and most likely headed to be very different 30 years hence.