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It's an odd state of affairs indeed when the Act Party and the Maori Party agree on something.

The policy backbone of Act, expressed in its apparently unexceptionable belief in one law for all people, proceeds from a suspicion, lodged somewhere in its DNA, that Maori are constantly trying to put one over the rest of "us" - though it never seems to wonder who the "us" might be.

The Maori Party, meanwhile, makes no bones about the fact that its mandate is to improve the lot of Maori: scarcely an utterance passes the lips of one of its MPs that does not contain the phrase "our people".

But this week it was plain that these ideological enemies have one thing in common: both agree that the Government's decision to sign up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is more than simply symbolic.

At that point, normal transmission resumed, since their respective judgments are very differently freighted.

Act Party leader Rodney Hide attacked not just the decision to back the declaration, but the Prime Minister John Key, calling him "naive in the extreme" for imagining that it would have no practical effect.

Nothing if not true to his principles, he wants to create public concern that the declaration confers special rights on one group of citizens.

Taking his cue, the uncompromising enfant terrible of the Maori Party, Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira, intoned that "nothing is ever just symbolic for Maori".

He was enunciating a literal truth, but you could practically hear him licking his lips with relish as he imagined how his pronouncement would ring in the ears of some Pakeha.

Both men are right, of course, to the extent that they are contradicting the Prime Minister's blithe assurances about the significance of our signing up to the declaration.

The last Government, with what it called "genuine regret and disappointment", declined to become a signatory when the declaration was first placed before the General Assembly in 2007.

And it took plenty of flak for doing so from Maori, who saw the move as a denial of their rights.

Meanwhile, observers from left and right suggested that Labour baulked because it feared political backlash at the 2008 election.

Few seemed prepared to take at face value Labour's explanation that provisions in the document - such as the one that gave indigenous peoples the right "to own, use, develop or control lands and territories they have traditionally owned, occupied or used" - could be read as covering every square centimetre of the country.

It was piercingly ironic that, in refusing to make a promise it could not keep, Labour was depicted as lagging behind signatory countries with much sorrier records on indigenous rights than our own.

Ever the pragmatist, John Key has (or rather thinks he has) sidestepped this difficulty by attaching a proviso reaffirming our "legal and constitutional frameworks" which "define the bounds of New Zealand's engagement with the declaration".

It's an interesting position he adopts, seeking simultaneously to hold that the declaration is with and without significance, depending on which of his two coalition partners he wants to pacify at any given moment. But it is also untenable.

Key has described the document as "aspirational". It's a word that only weeks ago he was applying to his aim to have our incomes catch up with Australians.

The Reserve Bank Governor said that aim was unachievable and was chided by Key for his defeatism. Since then, the PM seems to have decided that "aspirational" signifies "we don't really mean it".

In fact, the UN Declaration means a good deal more than Key seems to realise. Harawira's "nothing is ever just symbolic for Maori" isn't the half of it.

No less a voice than New Zealand's first Maori High Court judge, Sir Edward Taihakurei Durie, this week said the principles of the declaration will find their way in time into New Zealand law, both statute law and judge-made law.

Only a fool would disagree.

Like the clause in the State Owned Enterprise Act of the 1980s, which said that "nothing in this act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi", the meaning of the declaration will evolve over time.

It does not mean what Hide fears it means; but neither is at as anodyne, symbolic and "aspirational" as Key would have us all believe.

As the years pass, it will come to have the force that legal argument and judicial ruling lend it. But if Key thinks it is simply a feelgood pronouncement, he - and his successors - may be in for a big surprise.