An Act Party proposal to enshrine what it says are the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi in legislation has strong support from the public, with 60 per cent of voters saying they would back the proposal if put to them in a referendum, according to a Taxpayers’ Union-Curia Poll.
Just 18 per cent opposed the idea, with the remaining 22 per cent saying they were unsure.
Significantly fewer voters said they wanted a referendum in the first place, with just 45 per cent saying they wanted a referendum on the idea, 25 per cent saying they opposed a referendum and 30 per cent saying they were unsure.
Act leader David Seymour said the poll showed “very strong” support for the party’s policy, which is to follow a similar process to its End of Life Choice Act: Parliament would discuss and debate the principles, pass a bill, but only have it enter into force following a successful “yes” vote at a referendum.
“It is almost two years since I first floated this idea, it is an idea whose time is come. The Treaty today is mainly understood through its principles but those principles have never been discussed debated or settled by the people of New Zealand,” Seymour said.
The principles of the Treaty of Waitangi are used to apply the Treaty in a range of contemporary contexts. They are often written into legislation, and are used and developed by the judiciary to interpret what the Treaty means today.
But Act has noticed a growing frustration at the mission creep of the principles since they entered legislation in the 1980s. Act says this has seen the Treaty interpreted in ways it argues are inconsistent with what was set out in 1840 - although many disagree with Act on this point.
Its policy document on the principles said the judiciary “will interpret the scope of the amorphous ‘principles of the Treaty’ very widely, though not the actual articles of the Treaty itself.
The party’s proposal is to legislate over the top of this, proposing a fixed definition of the principles, that leans heavily on article three of the Treaty. Some argue this comes at the expense of some of the Crown’s responsibilities which are outlined in the first two articles.
The referendum would be worded something along the lines of the following, which was put to people in the Taxpayers’ Union Curia Poll
Would you support or oppose a Treaty Principles Act that defined the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi as follows:
1 The New Zealand Government has the right to govern New Zealand.
2 The New Zealand Government will protect all New Zealanders’ authority over their land and other property.
3 All New Zealanders are equal under the law, with the same rights and duties
Seymour said that his party’s view of the world, resting on limited government and devolution, was closer to what the chiefs were imagining in 1840.
“I think Act’s view of the world is much closer to what the chiefs envisaged... They imagined a very limited government with lots of self-determination,” he said.
The party faces an uphill battle to get the referendum over the line in coalition talks.
National leader Christopher Luxon is not keen on the referendum, telling the Hui the idea was “divisive and not helpful”.
He said he would not support it.
The referendum was also a topic in this week’s The Press minor party leaders’ debate.
Te Pāti Māori’s Te Tai Tonga candidate Tākuta Ferris clashed with Seymour over the referendum during the debate on Tuesday.
“You can’t referendum a Treaty away, it’s a permanent fixture of the constitution of our country and it is not going anywhere,” Ferris said.
Taxpayers’ Union head of campaigns Callum Purves said, “New Zealanders are clearly concerned about the gradual erosion and watering down of democratic accountability that has arisen from interpretations of the Treaty principles being decided by the courts and Public Service rather than by democratically elected representatives.
“A fundamental principle of democracy is that of accountability: The ability to remove bad or ineffective decision makers from office. Some interpretations of the Treaty principles – which have not been voted on by Parliament – erode this principle. This poll shows voters do not agree with the path these interpretations have taken.”
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.