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Upton-on-line: Treaty Troubles

Upton-on-line July 27th

Treaty Troubles

The Treaty of Waitangi is 160 years young and only beginning to hit its straps in terms of its ability to influence our national destiny in ways entirely unforeseen by its reckless early Victorian signatories. Their foresight of developments at the close of the twentieth century was, it seems, truly oracular.

Two events this week served to remind upton-on-line that this has to be one of the most fertile and swift-moving areas of public policy if not always the most comprehensible.

During Question Time in the House on Wednesday, the new Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia chose to extend the Treaty’s shadow even further into the field of bio-technology.

Asked by Green MP Sue Bradford whether he approved of the Environmental Risk Management Authority’s decision to allow human genes to be inserted in dairy cows in the face of opposition from the ERMA’s own Maori Advisory Committee and local hapu he said, “No” and indicated that he would be talking to the Environment Minister, Marian Hobbs, about seeing that ERMA was given a clear direction that “the Maori perspective …is given appropriate consideration”.

Anyone who knows anything about this hearing will know that the Maori perspective was considered to death at huge cost by everyone concerned. As one of the ministers who put the legislation on the statute book, I am acutely aware of the pains that were taken to see that legitimate Maori concerns would be heard – alongside all other concerns. Most people thought these would centre on people planning the genetic modification of plants and other species of cultural significance to Maori. Few people thought that bio-medical interventions were at the front of people’s minds.

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But what was never contemplated was the ERMA becoming yet another battle ground for the assertion of brave new Treaty rights. But that is what it is becoming, with Ngati Wairere (at a hui specially convened in May to debate the issues with ERMA) claiming rangatiratanga under the Treaty and objecting to ERMA daring to ask questions about its claim that:

“Ngati Wairere reiterate the manipulation of human gene [sic] is unnatural as it interferes with the basic relationship between generations and specie which are central to all aspects of Maori spiritual, metaphysical customs and values and is inconsistent with Maori whakapapa.”

Metaphysical concerns are not unique to Maori. It should not be considered offensive to test such issues. These are brand new challenges to human society. We have put some of the toughest legislation in the world in the way of genetic experimentation.

Yet the new Minister considers that – despite all that agonising by the Authority (which itself has two Maori members and others well versed in tikanga Maori) – there is a need for even more Treaty emphasis.

From upton-on-line’s perspective, if you go any further than the existing arrangements you are advocating an effective veto on the part of Maori.

The irony of all this is that the Greens who raised the issue will use any argument to stop any form of genetic engineering. On this occasion, Sue Bradford talked respectfully of “the deeply held and legitimate concerns of tangata whenua”. What happens to Green enthusiasm for this line when equally deeply held and legitimate concerns persuade Maori that Sir Tipene O’Regan is right on the question of seal culling?

Talking about deep and metaphysical things is not necessarily helpful – particularly if the aim is to halt all debate in its tracks.

Trade Treaties

The second novel encounter with the Treaty of Waitangi’s ever-expanding magnetic field was revealed in an article in the NZ Herald earlier this week.

The Herald story disclosed that the delayed signing of a Singapore-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement was in part related to Singaporean concerns about how unfolding Treaty settlements might affect future Singaporean investments in New Zealand.

The story was obscurely sourced and upton-on-line has been unable to ascertain whether it was leaked from the Singaporean end or from Wellington.

Any number of mildly conspiratorial sorts of theories can be constructed to account for this extraordinary story surfacing as it has. Upton-on-line doubts whether this is a particularly large concern to the Singaporeans. They are, however, clever and inscrutable negotiators with an eye for any point of leverage no matter how whimsical.

They would be very unlikely to have given the story public currency. A more plausible explanation may be that Trade Minister Jim Sutton saw no harm in exposing the consequences of some of the more bizarre international antics of those hard core activists who felt the need to travel to Fiji to show solidarity with George Speight.

The significant point is that the reverberations of the Treaty are now being felt outside of New Zealand. The fact that it has even been raised suggests that foreign perceptions of New Zealand are now being shaped by a domestic debate to which we have no answers ready to hand. If foreign observers see New Zealand activists standing shoulder to shoulder with B-grade coupsters in Melanesia, they could be forgiven for asking just what sort of a debate is going on in New Zealand.

Ripples Emanating from the Government

It is not only people like Tame Iti and Anthony Sinclair who create the ripples, though. Key policy makers within the Government are given to musing in mysterious ways about Treaty issues. The most recent ripple – thus far largely unremarked – came from Margaret Wilson, the Minister responsible for Treaty Settlements. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a new ripple since her comments were made prior to the election in her former academic life.

But their publication in a new book, Culture, Rights, and Cultural Rights brought them back into prominence. Wilson co-edited the book with Paul Hunt. It is, in fact, a series of papers delivered at a colloquium held at Waikato University to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal declaration of Human Rights.

Wilson’s paper – Cultural Rights: Definitions and Contexts – covers much well-trodden ground: the politicisation of culture, the universalist/relativist discourse on rights and the contexts in which these debates are engaged – academic, political and judicial. But Wilson can’t resist an observation that begs just about every question in the constitutional book.

“…I would observe” she says, “that economic devolution without social, cultural and political devolution has a limited chance of success.” What sort of political devolution you may ask? We’re not told. And the Minister has already made it clear that what she ventured in academia is not necessarily a guide to what we may expect from the Government.

Fine. But it is curious to be in a situation where some leading edge Maori radicals are challenging the validity of one man, one vote, the Foreign Minister is advocating it strongly in respect of Fiji, and the Government’s in-house constitutional and Treaty expert is silent while we ponder her progressive utterances in a former life.

Normalising the Debate

I applaud Parekura Horomia’s statement the other day that pakeha should stop regarding Maori as being too complex to understand. Decades of indifference to Maori concerns has been metamorphosed into a strangulating political correctness that runs the risk of substituting disingenuous silence for respect.

If there are metaphysical and cultural issues at stake, we should discuss them. It must be possible to debate these issues without anyone needing to allege cultural offence. Certainly, wrapping our cultural sensitivities in cotton wool is no guarantee of cultural survival. If anything, it risks cultural atrophy.

Whether it is genes in cows, radio frequency spectra or the electoral system, people on both sides should stop us speaking in riddles. We might be both relieved to discover that neither of us has the answer and that we might have to do some hard and creative thinking rather than intoning abstract concepts that never engage one another.

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