Paul Moon: Key can take credit for this year's trouble-free build-up

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Simon Schama warns that historians should not be in the prophecy business, but I would like to offer one for Waitangi Day.

On Friday a selection of New Zealand's great and good will wander around the grounds at Waitangi and enjoy what will be reported in the media as a relaxed, festive atmosphere, which will be relatively trouble-free, unlike previous years.

It's not much of a prophecy, though. Based on events at Waitangi last year, there is a dull predictability about the forthcoming commemoration of our Treaty of cession. Few people will miss the bad old days, when our national day was punctured by protests, revealing one of the less edifying sides of our country's character.

Much of the new calmness that has descended on Waitangi Day can be attributed to John Key who, as Prime Minister-in-waiting, allayed fears about how a National Government would deal with Maori issues in general and who, on being elected, followed through with his commitment to inclusion by inviting the Maori Party to have a role in his administration.

During Don Brash's tenure as National's leader, such an accommodation would have been inconceivable. Key's role in this has been a case study of superb political management.

Of course, it is not a marriage of true love. National and the Maori Party make unusual bedfellows, but when joined by Act, the resulting menage proves little more than that in politics, expediency trumps ideology almost every time. The Greens might disagree, but then, they are not in government, which perhaps proves the point.

So now that the new age of co-operation has dawned, what is the future for the Treaty? The Government has made it clear that it is dedicated to a deadline for resolving historical claims, and so it is time to start looking to a post-Waitangi Tribunal era for the Treaty.

There will be some losers in this. A coterie of lawyers - fleshy-lipped from years of sucking healthy fees from the claims process - will be left looking elsewhere for sources of income. But it is unlikely that many people will evince much sympathy at their plight.

More of a loss will be those researchers who have contributed so much to our history through their diligence in investigating claims, although the forbidding detail of much of their work - albeit necessary - has made it inaccessible to most people.

By far the biggest change, however, will come about in the way the Treaty is perceived, popularly and then constitutionally. For almost four decades, the frontiers of most of the discussion about the Treaty have been dominated by the adversarial nature of the claims and settlement process.

The parties involved would habitually assume a taut posture whenever it was their turn to make their case, expecting (and often getting) some opposition from the Crown or other affected groups.

For an entire generation, the Treaty relationship was accompanied with this faint air of antagonism, while the mechanics of that relationship - as witnessed in the work of the tribunal, but also in numerous protests where Maori tried to protect their sovereign rights and written guarantees - played out rather like an intractable divorce, one in which the other party was always viewed with a scowl from across a divide, rather than with any sense of longing to be reunited.

This phase is fast disappearing, and will eventually be seen as an episode from a less enlightened period in our history. The next challenge will be in considering whether the Treaty belongs in some formal constitution that will no doubt be devised in the next few decades (can I hear the sound of lawyers again rubbing their hands?).

This is a much more complex issue than it sounds, though. The Treaty of Waitangi was an agreement between two sovereign nations, and was not initially intended to serve as an internal constitutional document.

Moreover, Britain has long since walked away from its commitment to the agreement, leaving the New Zealand Government in a legally ambiguous position. As one British official put it to me - when trying to explain away yet confirm the anomaly - there are "two Crowns" when it comes to the Treaty. A wit would have responded by noticing the implication of being two-faced, but that would have been impolite.

But what this does show is that the path ahead for the Treaty, while possibly paved with good intentions, is nonetheless a slippery one, and will require even greater measures of goodwill, intelligent consideration of the issues, and political expediency, if the future is to be less fractious than the recent past.

* Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

- NZ Herald

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