Tariana Turia: Open letter to NZ

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Tariana Turia. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Tariana Turia. Photo / Herald on Sunday

In writing to you, I take my lead from Sir Graham Latimer. Twenty-four years ago, he published a full page advertisement in major newspapers throughout the land. His letter included the English text of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

He wrote to the people, telling them what they had told him - that the Treaty had no meaning, for most New Zealanders it lacked any relevance to their lives.

Sir Graham begged to differ. He did so on the basis of 24 words, encapsulated in section nine of the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986. "Nothing in this law shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi."

With those words, a platform was established for Treaty jurisprudence; but more importantly the pathway to nationhood which enables all of us to call New Zealand home.

Out of those words have emerged far-reaching decisions in education, land, te reo Maori, in forestry, in radio, in television. They have, in many respects, defined our nation, ensuring that Maori have the same right as others to the protection of the law; recognising their unique distinctiveness as tangata whenua and as one of two partners to the Treaty.

And vitally, it reminds us all of the constitutional significance of Te Tiriti o Waitangi as instructing us how to live together as Treaty partners.

Protecting the special character of our "home" has been at the essence of the action we have taken last week.

I am not one prone to idle threats. Only one month into the 50th Parliament, the last thing anyone would have wanted would be disruption as is now likely. But to be honest, we never contemplated that the Government would dare to throw into question a legislative clause which many have described as establishing the foundation for a treaty-based nation.

Section nine. One sentence of law that changed, forever, the landscape of the Treaty debate that shapes our nation. Those words provided the basis for placing the Treaty at the heart of our ongoing growth as a nation.

I talk about our concept of home. When we think "treaty" it is so often in familial terms. We refer to Waitangi as the birthplace of the nation; the signing of the Treaty as the birth of this land we know as Aotearoa.

And so it was not surprising to read a description of the key players in the 1987 Lands Case as "parents". Justice Sir David Baragwanath, who as QC led Sian Elias and Martin Dawson for the plaintiffs in New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney-General, has written powerfully about the significance of that case as a turning point in our history. In his contribution to the "In Good Faith" symposium of June 2007, he traced the impeccable lineage of the key players involved some 20 years earlier.

He named several true parents of the Maori Council case: Dame Whina Cooper, the matriarch of the 1975 land march; Matiu Rata, the visionary behind the Waitangi Tribunal; Nganeko Minhinnick, the driving force in the Manukau claim.

We must never forget the heroic courage of Sir Graham Latimer, or as Sir Howard Morrison once said, "the bloke who mortgaged his farm in 1987, with Lady Emily's support, to take on the Crown". The chairman of the Maori Council - and Maori vice-president of the National Party from 1981 to 1992 - Sir Graham has done much to bring the Treaty into focus for us all.

Our home today in Aotearoa owes so much to these people who dared to have the audacity to believe, "in good faith", that the Treaty was worth fighting for.

It has been so disappointing that the advice the Prime Minister received last week did not enable him to see the magnitude of section nine. It was a mistake to suggest that section nine was "largely symbolic" and to extrapolate further that it had not even been used. Frankly, it missed the point.

Numerous commentators have proven otherwise - that section nine led directly to the more empowering provisions of sections 27a-d in the State-Owned Enterprises Act; it had direct bearing on the coal case, the broadcasting assets case that was central to the creation of Maori Television; the New Zealand Maori Council's settlement over the forestry assets. And, as public law specialist Mai Chen said in the Herald recently, it was the starting point of "an incremental but significant constitutional change in New Zealand".

The encouraging advice that nothing should permit the Crown to act in a manner that was inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi provided clarity to the courts; it enabled them, for the first time, to test the actions of the Crown against the principles of the Treaty.

Although the statute stands as an important testimony to the power of the Lands Case, it is the ongoing journey towards nationhood that has kept me awake over this last week.

And so to coin a phrase, I believe that the elegant way forward that is being sought comes back, ironically, to the nub of the debate over section nine.

Over this last week, I have thought back to the legacy of the leadership that brought the lands case to fruition. These were people in our living memory; too many are no longer with us, but their imprint will never die. They had an expectation of us that we will uphold the importance of the Treaty relationship; an expectation that I cannot ignore.

The representations made to Government at that time were hard fought for. We must honour the legacy of those who campaigned to create the constitutional guarantee to Maori that has arisen through interpretation of the Treaty principles.

Any diminution of section nine would be mana-diminishing for the Crown and the people she represents.

There are times when you know that the essence of all you believe in will be undermined by a particular action - and you have to make a stand. This is one of those times. We have no option but to stand strong on this matter; to take other New Zealanders along with us; to have faith in our foundations as a nation.

Section nine is not just a technical provision in law. At its core, it is about people talking together for our common good.

For the fundamental import of section nine was the pathway it provided for the creation of principles which have influenced the courts, settlement legislation and indeed our most intimate and meaningful relationships between Maori and the Crown. Those principles included themes of partnership, protection and participation; they represent the ultimate expression of good faith; of being fair to one another; of acting honourably.

The principles outline a prescription for a relationship which is central to our constitution; an exquisite blueprint for a nation in which kawanatanga and rangatiratanga sit alongside each other. There is a natural tension between these two forces which must be resolved in each case as it occurs. The nation should expect this from time to time.

The Treaty provides a framework for how we might be. And quite simply, that's worth fighting for.

- Na, Tariana

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