It was always going to happen. Over recent decades, whenever the National Party is in big political trouble in Opposition, it reaches deep and pulls out some version of the race card. This may be disguised by (or combined with) an attack on beneficiaries. But the underlying message is always the same: those National Party icons, (Pākehā) Kiwi mums and dads, will have their rights and property stripped away to benefit Māori.
No National Party leader has been so insensitive as to state that last part out loud since Don Brash, but well-honed and practised dog whistles have been used to convey the message in a way that cannot be misunderstood. Judith Collins has followed this well-worn path over the past few weeks in a desperate attempt to save her bumbling and inconsistent leadership. This is particularly hypocritical as she was part of the government which signed up to the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, against the advice of officials who warned of the serious implications for our country. New Zealand has a large indigenous population, unlike many of those countries in the United Nations General Assembly who approved the declaration, including many countries that evince little respect for human rights in general.
But John Key and his government wished to throw their allies, the Māori Party, a bone. So the declaration was signed, with assurances that it was not legally binding (true) and indications that nothing would change (most unlikely over the longer term).
Collins has now picked up a paper, He Puapua, which was presented to the Government in 2019, outlining some options for implementing the declaration. The paper was neither an official government one, nor has it been adopted as government policy. Collins reaction has not only been intemperate and factually inaccurate, it demonstrates that National never intended to take the declaration seriously.
In the end, it is clear that the underlying issue is the interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi, particularly in a 21st-century context. It is equally clear that Collins, like Brash before her, adheres to a now thoroughly outdated interpretation of the Treaty whereby the assembled chiefs at Waitangi surrendered sovereignty to the British Crown in return for certain guaranteed rights (the extent of which were probably not understood on the British side). The crucial point, from my perspective, is that the peculiar bundle of rights and powers that the British understood was contained in the term "Sovereignty" had no equivalent in Māori custom and practice. The term used in the Māori version, kawanatanga (governorship), comes nowhere near meaning sovereignty. But the British had their piece of paper and their interpretation. The successor colonial governments took the same interpretation, while undermining the intent and purpose of the remainder of the Treaty.
A well-known Wellington retailer used to base its pitch around the slogan "It's the putting right that counts". We are already in that phase of putting it right in terms of Crown-Māori relationships. The work that has proceeded over the last three governments has been, at least in part, based around the concept of Treaty-based relationships which are, in one sense or another, partnerships. This is much more consistent with what rangatira thought they were signing up to in 1840.
There is a long way to go in putting it right. He puapua presents some challenging options which, like capital gains tax, may never make it past the gate of public opinion and political nervousness. But there is some low-hanging fruit, such as the Department of Conservation, which could quickly move to a true partnership. A deep sense of injustice felt by many Māori could be removed.
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There is ample scope for many such partnerships, Oranga Tamariki being the most pressing example. But it is an example which demonstrates that simple slogans do not an effective policy make. Simply calling for handing over control of Oranga Tamariki to Māori organisations ignores certain complex issues. What happens to Pākehā or Pasifika children? Who pays? How do we ensure fair and equal treatment for that majority of Māori children in most areas who do not affiliate to those holding mana whenua rights in an area? Above all, I cannot see how it is possible for the government to absolve itself of all responsibility, especially in the case of the death of a child.
Which is to say that a new model Oranga Tamariki has to be built around a genuine Treaty-based partnership. This will take some time to create. Other such partnerships may take much longer to develop. The key component in all of this will be principled political leadership and a well-informed public, both of which are engaged in the discussion. There is no prospect that Pākehā will become outcasts in New Zealand. Māori will, however, progressively be able to restore their position, playing an active partnership role as tangata whenua.
Collins has set herself against being part of an intelligent conversation on these issues. She is unlikely to lead National into the next election. So she matters less than the fact that it is hard to see on the National benches anyone with the intelligence and understanding of Doug Graham and Christopher Finlayson on Treaty relationships.
In terms of the concept of partnerships as a key element in our political processes we have done very much worse than should be possible in such a small country. The famed army of five million all too easily splinters into myriad self-interested groups who deploy dubious arguments to protect their positions. All turn up on Morning Report arguing that they need more money, without any thought for those who will get less as a consequence. It is hard to see how the great issues of our time – poverty, climate change, and the place of the Treaty – will be solved without some very large shifts in attitudes.
• Sir Michael Cullen is a former Labour MP, Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister