Judith Collins’ comments on Māori health policy are a diversion | Claire Robinson

National leader’s warning about greater Māori self-governance are designed to deflect from her unpopularity

In October I wrote in praise of the Māori party’s Mana Motuhake policy, a 25-year plan to improve Māori outcomes based on Māori asserting their right to exercise tino rangatiratanga – roughly translated as self-management, self-determination and self-governance – over all their domains. I predicted that whether the Māori party made it back into parliament in 2020 or not (it did), this call was only going to get louder.

After a speech last Saturday by the National party opposition leader, Judith Collins, this issue has been catapulted to the middle of the political agenda. Collins’ speech drew attention to a report named He Puapua, written by an expert working group charged by the Labour-led coalition cabinet in 2019 to develop a plan and engagement process to realise the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), which the John Key-led National coalition government signed up to in 2010.

He Puapua, submitted to cabinet in November 2019, has only just seen the light of day following an Official Information Act request. It proposes separate Māori authority across multiple layers of government, including constitutional changes, such as a Māori parliament, similar to that advocated by the Māori party in 2020.

In her speech, Collins suggested that the new, recently announced, independent Māori health authority was a sign that the government was introducing the report’s recommendations “by stealth”. Collins claimed using the Treaty of Waitangi to justify new and separate governance arrangements was a fundamental change to New Zealand society.

Collins called for a national conversation before this type of arrangement was accepted. Ironically, this is where she and He Puapua are on the same page. The report is clear on the need for public engagement and a strong public education campaign to ensure all New Zealanders understand and are part of the plan, as part of a continued national conversation.

Nonetheless, immediate media reactions to Collins’ speech questioned whether her approach was a sound re-election strategy in 2021. Conservative commentator Ben Thomas opined: “It looks as if she is casting around for any kind of temporary sugar hit she can get in terms of a brief bump in the polls” to deflect questions away from her performance and leadership of the National party.

Parallels were raised between Collins’ speech and one former National leader Don Brash gave in 2004 (dubbed his “Orewa” speech) on what he described as “the dangerous drift towards racial separatism in New Zealand”. He accused the then Labour government of turning the country into a racially divided nation, with two sets of laws and two standards of citizenship. The Brash speech hit a nerve among middle New Zealand and resulted in a major surge of public opinion support for the National party. Commentators suggested Collins was hoping for the same much-needed bump in National’s current popularity.

There are certainly similarities between the Collins and Brash speeches. Both hinged their anti-separatist argument on New Zealand’s first Governor, William Hobson’s statement after Te Tiriti (The Treaty) o Waitangi was signed in 1840, when he proclaimed “He iwi tahi tātou” or “We are now one people”. Both Brash and Collins implied this statement had the same weight as Te Tiriti. In reality it was merely Hobson’s personal observation, not part of the formal agreement the Chiefs signed.

But it’s also the opposition’s job to challenge the government and Collins’ point about Labour not being entirely upfront about its intentions was a reasonable one to make. The government has been somewhat oblique on this question. For example, when announcing the establishment of the Māori Health Agency a few weeks ago, the minister of health, Andrew Little, said: “By making these changes, we can start giving true effect to tino rangatiratanga and our obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”

The ramifications of this sentence are huge. If the Labour government has decided that giving true effect to tino rangatiratanga means the establishment of separate government agencies to look after Māori interests, then this, of necessity, has to cover all aspects of policy and society. Because there’s nothing in the Treaty of Waitangi that limits tino rangatiratanga obligations to health only.

While many Māori will be buoyed up by this prospect, Collins framed it as a negative, asking: “Where then does this end, or does it end?” Being deliberately provocative, a tactic designed to draw out a more definitive position from Labour, is a standard National party attack strategy; a way of instilling fear of the unknown into voters’ minds while provoking Labour to state this is not what they will do.

The day after her speech, Collins called on the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, “to explain why Labour has been busy implementing He Puapua’s recommendations one by one without sharing this wider plan with New Zealanders.” The following day, Ardern was forced to admit that the report had not been discussed at cabinet level, and did not necessarily represent the views of cabinet.

Ardern being more upfront about Labour’s intentions beyond health is not a simple matter. Under pressure from her large and increasingly impatient Māori caucus to deliver positive outcomes to Māori after four years in government, on top of her 2018 Waitangi Day pledge to be held to account for what Labour has done for Māori, Ardern will be carefully weighing up the benefits of responding to Māori self-management demands versus losing voters in the middle who may be spooked by what they fear might be lost should there be two systems of government. She will be worried about her commitment to Māori coming at the expense of Labour’s majority control over the next government.

It’s unlikely that moving all the way to Māori self-governance is Labour’s idea of a perfect solution. Governments in power rarely give up their power willingly. But Labour has backed itself into a corner as a result of its stated preference for universalism, underpinned by a belief that a rising tide will raise all boats. This is in contrast to opposition parties National and ACT, which share a preference for needs-based targeting. Faced with the reality that universalism hasn’t markedly shifted the dial for Māori over the past four years, but politically unable to adopt the position of her opponents, Ardern may find herself having little choice but to come out in support Māori self-management, self-determination and self-governance, whether cabinet likes it or not.

While the Ardern cabinet prevaricates, the opposition parties will continue to fill the void by painting pictures of western democracy’s loss rather than Aotearoa New Zealand’s gain.

Claire Robinson is a Professor of Communication Design at Massey University

Claire Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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