Minister of Maori Development Willie Jackson via Getty
Minister of Maori Development Willie Jackson via Getty

Peter Williams : He Puapua - let's give Willie Jackson some advice!

Peter Williams 01/07/2021

OPINION: Minister of Maori Development Willie Jackson is going to tell us a bit more today about what the government intends to do about the He Puapua report.

In this country today, the Minister of Maori Development Willie Jackson is going to tell us a bit more about what the government intends to do about the He Puapua report. And I just wondered this morning, if you’d like to give Willie some advice about which direction he should take the country based on the recommendations in He Puapua. 

As we know, He Puapua means a break. It’s traditional meaning pertains to a break in the waves. But on this occasion, its meaning is that in New Zealand - sorry Aotearoa - there should be a breaking of the usual political and societal norms and approaches. It is a radical report, essentially suggesting there should be co-governance of the country with iwi holding positions of major influence, if not major control, such as proposed in the initial thinking around the Maori Health Authority.

The ideas and most of the concepts in the report are outrageous, divisive and worst of all, undemocratic because those who say they are Maori will have significant influence, if not a veto, on decisions affecting the entire country and everybody in it. But there is a sneaking suspicion that because of the influence of people like Jackson and Nanaia Mahuta inside the cabinet, many of these ideas will get government approval in some shape or form.

We will find out more of the official government thinking on this later today, but I think we saw a hint of it yesterday with those water reforms proposed by Mahuta, and the plans for Mana Whenua to have influence in the governance of water authorities. Why? Is water not a natural resource which falls from the sky for the benefit of all of us? Water is owned by no one. Yes, the land underneath waterways can be privately owned or iwi owned or publicly owned, the pipes to reticulate water and discharge the storm and the wastewater can be owned by various entities, but the water itself is a product of nature, is always changing, is always being produced, and is always there for all of us. And that’s the key, is it not? All of us. New Zealanders.

This is New Zealand, one of the oldest, continuous  democracies in the world. A place where every adult citizen and resident has been able to take part in the democractic process since 1893, where one person’s votes carry equal weight with all others. My fear is that He Puapua might be wanting to challenge that concept.

Now let’s cut Willie a bit of slack and see what he comes up with later today but I have a few thoughts on He Puapua, its recommendations, and on a couple of concepts raised in a very good column by Auckland academic Elizabeth Rata, who has published a piece for the Democracy Project called Ethno-Nationalism or Democratic-Nationalism; Which way ahead for New Zealand? The thesis of her column is that New Zealand stands at the crossroads.

As Elizabeth Rata sees it, there are two directions we could go. One: Do we want our ethnicity, or more particularly part of our ethnicity, to be the defining aspect of our lives? Or two, do we want to fully embrace multiculturalism and live harmoniously in these lands as “New Zealanders” ? Personally, I’m in absolutely no doubt what kind of country I want, and I suspect the vast, vast majority of New Zealanders will want as well - option two. Elizabeth Rata is Maori, but she has been described as the WInston Peters of academia. And frankly, that is no bad thing. Essentially, as the New Zealand First leader has always espoused, that means we are all New Zealanders in this country. And she asks a very pertinent question.

As He Puapua makes the astonishingly confident claim that Aotearoa has reached a maturity where it is ready to undertake the transformation to restructure governance to realise rangatiratanga or self determination, just exactly WHY would we abandon democracy?  Why indeed? Ms Rata goes on to write of He Puapua’s plans for a system of constitutional categorisation based on ancestral membership criteria rather than the universal human who is democracy’s foundational unit. Isn’t that beautifully put? The Universal Human. What a concept. 

In my mind the ideas behind He Puapua are deeply, deeply flawed. For a start, there is no definition of who gets to qualify as Maori anymore. My understanding is that if you identify as Maori that’s enough to put yourself on the Maori electoral roll. Nobody asks any questions, you don’t have to provide any proof of ancestry. The option is open to everybody every five or six years, and the next option period  is in 2024. If there are laws brought in to provide proof, what fraction of ancestry would be required? And what kind of proof would be required?  The lead author of He PuaPua, Doctor Claire Charters from Auckland University, is at most 25 percent Maori. She has a Pakeha mother, and a paternal pakeha grandfather.

Her Maori line only comes from her paternal grandmother. And that’s just fine. But the lead author of this report recommending significant changes to the way New Zealand is governed is herself descended more from the colonisers than from the original settlers on this land. Why should a group of people in this country with a fraction of their genetic makeup which may have come from a Maori ancestor 200 years ago have privilege over someone who’s wholly Scottish family has been here just 170 years? Are these not really important questions that should be addressed before we go down the path of what Elizabeth Rata refers to as ethno-Nationalism, the concept which has produced awful conflict in among other places, Rwanda, South Africa and the former Yugoslavia.

And then as another academic David Round, a law lecturer at Canterbury University wrote back in 2008, there is the greater question. Are we to be a nation, or merely a collection of disparate tribes and cultures all fighting for our own self interest, heedless of the greater good? Isn’t that the fundamental question for this country’s constitutional future? Elizabeth Rata’s piece finishes with this strong stance, that I reckon cannot be disputed. I quote. “It becomes a danger to liberal societies regulated by democratic politics when ethnicity is politicised.

By basing a governance system of classification and categorisation on historical rather than contemporary group membership, we set ourselves on the path to ethno-nationalism.” Here’s the question then - ethno-nationalism or democratic nationalism? Yes they are academic terms, and you may not use them in everyday conversation but you know what they mean. I prefer the one with the word democratic in it.

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