TRUST. Nothing is more important to a government than the trust of the governed. With trust, there is very little that a government cannot accomplish. Without it, durable political accomplishments are much less likely. Jacinda Ardern’s government is currently teetering on the brink of forfeiting a crucial percentage of the electorate’s trust – more than enough to cost it the next election.
Trust, of course, cuts both ways. It is equally critical, in political terms, that a government trusts the people to at least the same extent as the people trust the government. Indeed, nothing erodes the voters’ trust faster than evidence their own government considers them untrustworthy.
At the heart of the political uncertainties enveloping the concept of co-governance is the Labour Government’s all-too-obvious lack of trust in the Pakeha majority. A lack of trust also displayed by the National Party. What other explanation could John Key possibly offer for sending the Māori Party’s co-leader, Pita Sharples, to New York, in conditions of virtual secrecy, to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).
Given that UNDRIP was largely authored by, and has become the crowning achievement of an indigenous New Zealander, Moana Jackson, a New Zealand government, untroubled by the public’s reaction, might have been expected to make more of the event than a diplomatic fait accompli. Likewise, with respect to the formation of a special working group tasked with identifying the cultural and constitutional changes required to give full effect to UNDRIP.
A government untroubled by the political ramifications of such an investigation would not have kept its existence hidden from its coalition partner. A government willing to trust the New Zealand electorate would not have kept the working group’s report – He Puapua – under wraps. On the contrary, it would have welcomed the lively political debate which the unedited Report’s voluntary release would undoubtedly have generated.
But, as we all know, trust was lacking. Not only was the re-elected Labour Government anxious to keep the document secret, but those Māori with a deep interest in constitutional reform – including Moana Jackson – similarly manifested a strong aversion to debating He Puapua’s recommendations openly in the public square.
Even when the full text of He Puapua was leaked to former Act MP Muriel Newman’s right-wing New Zealand Centre for Political Research, the reaction of the Labour Government was to downplay its significance and emphasise that it was not – repeat NOT – government policy. The Prime Minister went further: flatly ruling-out implementing one of the Report’s most controversial recommendations – the creation of an Upper House of Parliament, composed of an equal number of Māori and non-Māori members, and tasked with testing the legislation passed up to it by the Lower House against the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Jacinda Ardern’s reflexive rejection of the proposed Upper House was not only precipitate, it was also politically injudicious. There are many recommendations contained within the He Puapua report that are considerably more problematic than the creation of an Upper House. Indeed, if a government was anxious to demonstrate to voters the efficacy of the principle of co-governance, then a second chamber made up of 50 percent Māori and 50 percent Non-Māori, would be precisely the right place to start.
An Upper House constitutionally limited to reviewing, reporting-on, and – if necessary – returning, legislation to the House of Representatives for further consideration and/or revision, could play a powerfully educative role in preparing the population for other cultural and constitutional changes.
Critical to the Upper House fulfilling such an educative function would be the elimination, as far as practicable, of all the debilitating distractions of partisanship.
For the Māori half of the Chamber, this could be achieved by delegating the choice of representatives to an agreed-upon roll of collective Māori entities. The manner of identifying these entities’ representatives would be determined by the iwi and hapu involved. Some might opt for election, others for more traditional methods of identifying and anointing leaders.
For the Pakeha half of the Chamber, partisanship might be avoided by following the example of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate, members of which are appointed to represent Public Administrators, the Legal Profession, Employers, Farmers, Trade Unions, the Universities, and people prominent in the world of Arts and Letters.
Anxious to move beyond the murderous allegiances of the Irish Civil War (1922-23) the framers of the Irish Republic’s constitution strove to construct an upper house guided not by fierce party loyalties, but by a determination to meet the challenges of self-government by harnessing the wisdom of the whole nation.
Thus constituted, the proposed Upper House could play a crucial role in identifying, investigating, and debating to what extent each piece of legislation passed by the House of Representatives conformed to – or deviated from – the principles of the Treaty. Have the decisions of the lower house strengthened or weakened the partnership between the Crown and tangata whenua? Are its decisions justified? Or should the legislation be sent back to the House for further deliberation?
It is difficult to conceive of a more gentle or thoughtful way of demonstrating the value of co-governance as a method for devising policies and making laws which both Māori and Non-Māori can accept without reservation and/or resentment. An Upper House with strictly limited powers, but constituted in such a way that the worth of legislation driven by purely partisan considerations can be assessed by those beholden to very different principles, would fast become the respected educator of the nation.
The Prime Minister’s rejection of this key He Puapua recommendation – almost out of hand – is deeply regrettable. As a means of instilling and demonstrating trust in the capacity of Māori and Non-Māori to determine and advance their best mutual interests, an Upper House has a great deal more to recommend it than Labour’s (and the Greens’) increasingly divisive Three Waters project, which, right from the start, has communicated to all affected parties an almost total lack of trust.
That Māori have myriad reasons to withhold their trust from Pakeha is undisputed by those with even a rudimentary understanding of New Zealand history. To refuse trust as a matter of policy, however, cannot hope to bring Māori and Pakeha close enough to jointly determine a mutually rewarding future for Aotearoa-New Zealand. For that to happen, both peoples need to trust each other enough to embrace new and untried solutions.
The Prime Minister should withdraw her objection to the creation of a co-governed Upper House. Let New Zealanders witness in public the Treaty debates that, hitherto, have only taken place in private. If there is wisdom and generosity to be found in the processes of co-governance, then let their virtues be seen by Māori and Non-Māori alike.
Trust them, and New Zealanders will, almost always, make the right choice.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 5 December 2022.