WHETHER NANAIA MAHUTA followed the conflict-of-interest rules set out in The Cabinet Manual hardly matters. A dangerous political narrative is forming around the appointment of, and awarding of contracts to, Mahuta’s whanau in circumstances that, at the very least, raise serious questions about this Government’s political judgement. Enlarging this narrative is the growing public perception that the mainstream news media is refusing to cover a story that would, in other circumstances, have attracted intense journalistic interest. The conflation of these two, highly damaging narratives with a third – the even more negative narrative of “co-governance” – has left the Labour Government in an extremely exposed and vulnerable position.
The Government’s failure to adequately prepare the New Zealand public for what Labour clearly regards as the inevitability of co-governance hasn’t helped. The party did not campaign on the issue, and kept He Puapua, the controversial “road-map” to full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – i.e. co-governance – by 2040, under wraps. Similarly unheralded was the Government’s determination to establish a separate Māori Health Authority. And the application of co-governance principles to Mahuta’s deeply unpopular “Three Waters” project has done nothing to allay public fears that the country is being changed, in fundamental ways, without the electorate’s consent.
The apparent failure of the mainstream news media to follow up on the story is being attributed to the extraordinary conditions attached to the Public Interest Journalism Fund administered by New Zealand On Air. In essence, these conditions require media outlets in receipt of the Fund’s largesse to subscribe in advance to a highly contentious series of propositions concerning the Treaty of Waitangi – most particularly to the Waitangi Tribunal’s claim the Māori never ceded sovereignty to the British Crown, and that this “fact” requires the Fund’s recipients to accept and support the “partnership” model of Crown-Māori relations. The fear expressed by independent journalists is that the net effect of these conditions will be unquestioning mainstream media support for co-governance.
Since the widespread assumption among Pakeha New Zealanders is that co-governance and representative democracy are fundamentally incompatible, Labour’s willingness to be presented as co-governance’s friend runs the risk of being cast as democracy’s enemy.
Of even greater concern is the inevitability of this anti-democratic characterisation being extended to an ever-increasing fraction of the Māori population. Statements from Māori leaders appearing to discount the importance of, or even disparage, the principles of democracy have done little to slow this process. Neither have the intemperate statements of the former National Party Minister for Treaty Settlements, Chris Finlayson. His comment to the online magazine E-Tangata, describing those opposed to co-governance as “the KKK brigade”, merely reinforces the widespread public perception that the slightest public opposition to the proposed changes will bring down accusations of racism upon the opponent’s head.
The problem with this willingness to indulge in ad hominem attacks on people holding genuine reservations about the Government’s proposals is that more and more of them will decide that they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and embrace the very racism of which they stand accused. In this context, the revelations that some members of a Māori Minister of the Crown’s whanau have been the recipients of Government funds, and appointed to roles not unrelated to the furtherance of the Minister’s policies, will be taken as confirmation that all is not as it should be in Aotearoa-New Zealand.
What began as an anti-co-governance narrative, and then merged with an anti-mainstream news media narrative, risks joining with a much older and more deeply entrenched narrative concerning the entire Treaty settlement process. This is the narrative that identifies the primary beneficiaries of Treaty settlements as a collection of Crown-assembled tribal elites, along with their legal and commercial advisers. Over the past thirty years these “Neo-Tribal Capitalists” have been accused of investing hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars in what amount to private tribal corporations, over which the intended recipients of these funds – hapu and whanau – exercise only the most indirect authority and receive only the most meagre of rewards.
The result could very easily be the emergence of what might be called a “super-narrative” in which all the negatives of co-governance, media capture, and Neo-Tribal Capitalism are rolled into one big story about the deliberate corruption of New Zealand democracy. The guilty parties would be an unholy alliance of Pakeha and Māori elites determined to keep public money flowing upwards into protected private hands. In this super-narrative, the structures set forth in He Puapua to secure tino rangatiratanga, will actually ensure the exclusion of the vast majority of New Zealanders from the key locations of power. The only positive consequence of which will be a common struggle for political and economic equality in which non-elite Māori and Pakeha will have every incentive to involve themselves.
The painful irony of this super-narrative scenario is that Labour will have positioned itself as its cause – not its remedy. Rather than repeating in the Twenty-First Century the fruitful political alliance between the Pakeha working-class and the victims/survivors of the deals done between the Crown and the Māori aristocracy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth, Labour will be seen to have facilitated the creation of a Treaty Partnership that not only undermines democracy, but also exacerbates the inequality between Māori and Pakeha, Pakeha and Pakeha, Māori and Māori.
What lies ahead, as the institutions of co-governance take shape, is the coming together of two very privileged birds of a feather: the Pakeha professionals and managers who have taken command of the society and economy created by Neoliberalism, and the Māori professionals and managers created to produce and operate the cultural and economic machinery of Neo-Tribal Capitalism.
This, ultimately, will be the spectre that arises out of the controversy swirling around Nanaia Mahuta. The spectre of the worst of both the Pakeha and the Māori worlds. Worlds in which the powerful trample all over the weak. Where tradition constrains the free exploration of ideas and techniques. And where the petty advantages of separation are elevated above the liberating effects of unity. Where “Aotearoa” creates two peoples out of one.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 31 May 2022.