The government needs to inspire people and be “loud and proud” about He Puapua, says Associate Professor Claire Charters, one of the authors of the report. (Photo supplied)

Since its public release in 2018, the He Puapua report has become synonymous with co-governance, which some see as separatist.

Although it’s dropped out of the headlines lately, work on He Puapua is continuing. The report’s co-author Dr Claire Charters tells us a draft action plan is due for release and public scrutiny shortly. 

In this conversation with Connie Buchanan, she says that far from being a secret plan to divide the nation, the ideas in He Puapua offer a path toward a more united country.


For unity, you need to have equality — and we don’t have that in this country. As a consequence of colonisation, we have deep social disparities creating division and separation. 

What we’ve been doing to repair that for Māori isn’t working.

All the empirical evidence, especially from Harvard over the last 30 years, tells us that Indigenous Peoples do better when they have some level of self-governance. 

He Puapua is about self-determination for Māori, not co-governance. 

It’s about Māori control over Māori things which will allow us to live fulfilling lives, without need, and to address our own issues. That’s not separatism. The last thing Māori want is to be part of a state where deep separation through inequality continues. 

What we put into He Puapua is a menu more than anything else. It gives the government options for implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the National government signed up to in 2010. 

It sets out the various ways that self-determination for Māori could be realised so that we’re upholding our international commitment. It will, among the other things, help us to protect our global reputation for being leaders in upholding human rights.

It’s not widely understood that our unwritten constitution means we have some of the fewest protections for minorities in the world. Formally, as a matter of law, we offer very limited protection compared to other democracies. People don’t realise that. We need to take action if we want to keep alive New Zealand’s reputation as a leader in this field.

Some New Zealanders’ understanding of democracy is very much that the ideal is one person—one vote. 

But that’s a very formalistic understanding of equality. It doesn’t address substantive equality. And it’s dangerous because that’s how you get tyranny of the majority. The basic rights of a minority should never be subjected to the will of a majority.

That’s why, in other places, democracy is recognised as a good thing but always with the understanding that you have to protect against the excesses of the majority. 

So, legal protections for minorities are built into written democratic constitutions — for example, in the US, in Canada, and in Australia too, to an extent. Those protections are part of a basic and fundamental understanding of good democracy.

To suggest that protecting the rights of minorities, or making provision for self-determination, is somehow anti-democratic is alarmist. 

But I think the polarity in the discussion about He Puapua is overstated. Once you get away from that extreme edge of people who use words like “anti-democratic” and “apartheid”, you find a group of people — including on the right and even on the far right — who really want to understand how we can go about making a better, more equal country. 

I think sometimes we’re not speaking enough to that group of people. There are open-minded people across the spectrum who are committed to justice and who can see what the issues are — and are worried about them. 

I do think the government needs to inspire these people. Be loud and proud about what we’re trying to achieve with He Puapua. Explain what self-determination means and why it doesn’t boil down to alarmist or racist interpretations of co-governance. That it could be a really positive step forward that will create a more equal society, both structurally and at an individual level. 

I’d love to see the government leading from the front on that, to come out positively and inspire people. Because we are moving forward as a nation. 

In my own lifetime, I’ve seen big movement. I see it in the exchanges I have with people who clearly sit on the right, where we’re able to debate and learn from each other. I see it in the courts with the recognition of tikanga Māori in our legal proceedings. I don’t think the Foreshore and Seabed Act would happen today, for example.

But it remains the case that, right now, for many Māori, there’s no reason to want to be part of the state. Why would you, when you live under an imposed system that doesn’t respect your rights under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and you experience structural inequality so that you’re at the bottom of every index? 

If anything, we’re incentivising people to separate themselves, and create greater division.

Following on from the release of He Puapua, we’ve done a series of 70 or so workshops to find out what Māori aspirations are for realising the UN Declaration. 

The overwhelming message we got back was so clearly the need for self-determination and tino rangatiratanga. The ability to live as Māori and make our own decisions as Māori for ourselves, particularly at a local level, over specific areas like education and health. Then also, at a state level, to have enhanced participation and authority.

So, right now, we’re drafting a national plan of action. It’s a joint process between representatives of the National Iwi Chairs Forum, the Human Rights Commission and the government, represented mainly by Te Puni Kōkiri, to set out what the next steps should be.

Hopefully, we will get something that will satisfy all the members who are coming from different perspectives and places. It might be that we have to compromise and not do the greatest transformative structural changes straight away. It might be that we start with steps in that direction, and then keep looking out ahead to 2040, which is the timeframe we’re working towards.

Once we’ve got that draft finalised, it will go out to the public. It would be good to have the public consulted on it by the end of the year. Then it’ll have to get government support to go through. There’s no back-door way of doing that. 

My own vision is for Māori to be flourishing both as individuals and as a people, which requires authority over things like our own culture. I don’t think the state should be regulating Māori culture, or spaces like our marae, at all. 

And it applies across a range of other areas, too. For example, with criminal justice, there must be recognition that what’s happening now in criminal justice for Māori is horrific. And the evidence tells us that we will do so much better if we’re providing our own solutions under our own authority. 

The ideas about criminal justice that exist in tikanga Māori will get us a lot further toward a harmonious society than the punishment and incarceration model. And that’s true for anybody who’s potentially going to come through the criminal justice system, not just Māori. That’s just one pragmatic reason to be open to other ways of doing things. 

Another example is the tikanga around our environment. Thinking about our natural world differently wouldn’t be a bad thing in the context of our climate crisis. Rather than just asking if we can sustain economic growth — or asking how much cash we can earn from our available resources — we might learn to see the environment as intrinsically of value, in the way that we do in te ao Māori.

Then there’s the structural reasons based on Te Tiriti. There was always meant to be some form of shared power. Our system has no legitimacy without that. 

People will say who cares about the Treaty anymore? Who cares about what was agreed way back in 1840? But if you want a system that’s based on law, and you want to uphold the system as being legitimate today, you can’t disregard our founding document which is the basis for establishing that law. Otherwise, there’s real hypocrisy there. 

Certainly, for Pākehā in power, there’s fear of the unknown, and of losing authority. It means shifting our Eurocentric colonial system to something that some people will be unfamiliar with — and where they might not have the same control. 

And I get that fear. But often it’s a fear that comes from not understanding that it is precisely the colonial western system that is not doing well by Māori. It’s a fear that comes from not understanding that lifting Māori up under our own authority doesn’t mean pulling others down.

I’m a firm believer in the contest of ideas. We should be able to have a good discussion about these issues. There’s a whole bunch of different things you can do to realise peoples’ rights — and we should be able to talk through which of those will work in our country. That’s what I’m hoping we’ll get when we put out the draft plan of action.

I used to be really impatient for immediate change. Now, I’ve realised that things don’t move at a steady pace. We might get movement all of a sudden, then some pushback, then a little bit more progress forward. But, ultimately, I believe we’ll find our goal. 

I think we’re headed in a direction that could create a more equal society. We’ve made some big ground in my lifetime, and Māori aren’t going to go away on these issues. We’ve been fighting for them since 1840.

In any situation where people care about democracy, they’re looking for substantive equality, not just theoretical equality. It’s not about treating everybody exactly the same if doing that creates inherent division.


Dr Claire Charters (Ngāti Whakaue, Tūwharetoa, Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Auckland, specialising in Indigenous Peoples’ rights. She chaired the He Puapua working group.

Claire and Professor Jacinta Ruru will be in conversation with Moana Maniapoto at the Auckland Writers Festival on Saturday 27 August. 

As told to Connie Buchanan, and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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