“The real purpose of Seymour’s ‘Treaty principles’ isn’t definition. It’s the limitation and eventual elimination of Te Tiriti,” says Catherine Delahunty. (Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone)

The new coalition government’s policy announcements have been more shocking than expected, writes Catherine Delahunty.


A few weeks ago, we were up early and hurrying down to the council building to make sure we got in the door. It was the last day that the Thames-Coromandel District Council could legally vote for a commitment to Māori wards — or they’d have to wait for another five years.

We were happy to be there with many tangata whenua and about a dozen Pākehā who’d come to support the kaupapa. There was excitement in the room as well as uncertainty.

After karakia and mihi led by the kaumātua of the rohe, and some other short items, the mayor invited speakers from the public. There were patient and hopeful observations, a space for all who wished to speak.

The councillors were urged by several iwi leaders “to boldly go where Auckland Council are afraid to go”. At those moments, we felt like we were in outer space, in a vessel whose mission was to travel beyond the limits of a racist hemisphere. The councillors then spoke one by one, all of them supporting the change in policy.

There was a lightness in the room. A haka by young people and many hugs. The mayor, Len Salt, said it was just a beginning — and he was right. But, considering the history of the Thames-Coromandel District Council — a history of Māori candidates not being elected if they stood as tangata whenua, a history of the council not building good relationships with iwi — it was a breakthrough.

The Hauraki District Council had just voted in support of Māori wards, and, for a pleasant change, both our councils in the Hauraki rohe were demonstrating respect for tangata whenua.

Obviously, Māori wards aren’t aligned with Article Two of Te Tiriti o Waitangi because Te Tiriti affirms the absolute authority of hapū to govern their own people — and only a limited Crown right. So while Māori wards get us closer to the deal in Te Tiriti, they’re just an adjustment within an imposed system of decision-making.

Yet even that tweak is a bridge too far for many people, now encouraged and validated by an overtly racist government.

But, in supporting them, councils like Hauraki and Thames-Coromandel are finally recognising that the Westminster system hasn’t worked for good relationships based on mutual respect. They’re recognising that our imposed model of decision-making needs change. So we left the council building in the warm glow of a small positive step.

This now feels like years ago as the election consequences unfold. There was a peaceful limbo while the triumvirate made their agreements, but that time is also erased by the announcements made by the new coalition government.

The lists of undoing and tearing down are somehow more shocking than I expected. It seems not only racist but also petty to attack the use of te reo, a language that Christopher Luxon once claimed to be learning.

The list of health “reforms” is a direct attack on the consensus of evidence that the health system is discriminatory against tangata whenua with serious consequences. The insistence that everyone should be “treated equally” reads like a 1950s medical ethics treatise.

The demand that public systems abandon all forms of co-governance attacks relationships and decisions that have developed over 30 years in many different spaces, from the care for the environment to public education.

Some of these structures live outside the powers of the Crown. It was heartening to see a the announcement of a new collaborative agreement (He Pou Tikanga Partnership Strategy) between South Taranaki District Council and the iwi of that rohe, despite the new government’s commitment to a great leap backwards.

Communities and local authorities can do better for themselves by ignoring the tone from the Beehive.

I was in parliament when the National government signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people (UNDRIP). There were some signals at the time that the Key government had signed it only after pressure from Te Pāti Māori, and that they viewed it as a toothless tiger.

The new government is now demanding confirmation that UNDRIP has no binding protocols requiring signatories to act — taking another step backward into bad faith.

Presumably, if anything meaningful is required, they’ll walk away. My blood boils when I think of the years of dedicated, courageous work it took to create UNDRIP, and the leadership of extraordinary people including Dr Moana Jackson. Only to now have their own country treat this work with contempt.

The proposed Treaty Principles Bill to “define the Treaty” is a sop to Act but no less dangerous because of it. I urge people who think it’s just about “having the debate” to read the Hansard records — to get an idea of the quality of debate on Te Tiriti constitutional issues in our parliament.

Remote as these discussions have been from the actual commitments of Te Tiriti, it can get worse. Reading David Seymour’s alternative “principles of the Treaty” is like reading a disingenuous Hobson’s Pledge leaflet in your letterbox.

The idea of parliament “defining the Treaty”, an agreement made between the Crown and the rangatira of the hapū in 1840, is a breach of Te Tiriti itself. The fantasy that a select committee will somehow listen to everyone on the issue is also naïve. Check out the submissions on the Takutai Moana Bill and see what happened to them.

The agreement in Te Tiriti wasn’t made by parliament. Nor was there any commitment in the text to a parliament having the power to define its meaning. But, of course, the real purpose of Seymour’s “Treaty principles” isn’t definition. It’s the limitation and eventual elimination of Te Tiriti. It’s a flashback to the sentiments of a former chief justice (James Prendergast) who, in 1877, declared: “The Treaty is a nullity.”

The policy decision to rewrite the new Aotearoa history curriculum is a commitment to wilful ignorance — but how else can we maintain white supremacy into future generations? I do wonder if teachers will be compliant with this ethos. The system has lagged on teaching a fair and accurate historical context since day one. But, hopefully, teachers who’ve now seen something better won’t buy into the slide backwards into whitewash.

The government’s attitude towards relationships with tangata whenua and Te Tiriti was well described by broadcaster Mihingarangi Forbes when she recently said: “They have burnt the house down.”

My tangata whenua mates also remind me that they’ve been through all this before, and this is just another round of colonial backlash. They’ve survived so much and are unfazed by the Pākehā system delivering its toxic inconsistencies and racist attacks on any progress.

They also remind me that this is a moment, for all of us who claim to be tangata Tiriti, to live up to that name. More than ever before we have work to do with our own people.

If any of us thought history was a linear journey towards justice, we need to wake up. Many of our people voted for this coalition’s reactionary negativity.

I haven’t even started on their plans for the economy or the environment.

The challenge to tangata Tiriti is what we’ll do to support a fightback led by tangata whenua. Will Pākehā, in particular, be prepared to march in solidarity with tangata whenua and all people directly affected by the neo-racist political programme? A gradual erosion has happened before when there was a change of government — and we’ve allowed the baby steps for Te Tiriti justice to be pushed back.

Back home, the first question for us is this: Will we be able to keep the Māori wards, even though the government has now promised to once again put the question of their existence to public referendums? Was that small moment of light and respect just a dream?

It’s down to us.


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother. Catherine was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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