The Government lost control of the Treaty partnership debate after the Opposition publicly released a report intentionally being kept under wraps. But now the topic is in the spotlight, expect some big changes to come in race relations this term, writes political editor Jo Moir.

In late 2019 the Labour-NZ First coalition received He Puapua – a 123-page discussion paper with recommendations on how to progress Māori self-determination, equity and partnership in response to a United Nations pledge.

Keeping He Puapua under lock and key was initially done for two reasons – the most obvious being New Zealand First’s aversion to race-based policy.

Secondly, there were fears its release could be interpreted as being the Government’s agenda, and some of the recommendations could be seen as radical race-based policy.

For that reason, releasing it in 2020 – an election year – would have been strongly advised against.

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Now that ACT and the National Party have thrown it into the public sphere, a debate has been triggered regardless.

But it appears National’s persistence to keep the issue in the headlines, highlighting new aspects of the report each week and claiming it’s separatist, isn’t working.

A Newshub-Reid Research poll on Sunday night shows National Party leader Judith Collins’ preferred prime minister ranking has dropped 12.8 points to 5.6 percent – even former Prime Minister Sir John Key is back in the polls and ahead of her.

On the question of whether National’s race relations push is seen as divisive, a plurality vote of 44.5 percent said yes while the rest said either no or don’t know.

The row over race is delivering more than just bad polls though.

It also prompted fiery scenes in Parliament on Wednesday when Te Paati Māori walked out of the chambers after losing its point of order over what it described as racist rhetoric from Collins when questioning the Prime Minister on He Puapua.

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson has drafted a paper to take to Cabinet with recommendations on how the Government can meet United Nations obligations after New Zealand signed up to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

That paper will go to Cabinet in the next few weeks, and it’s understood Māori and iwi will then be consulted before putting it out for wider public scrutiny later this year.

The recommendations that survive consultation will then be put in place this parliamentary term.

Aspects of He Puapua, including a separate health authority to cater for complex Māori needs and Māori wards, are already happening irrespective of the Declaration or the report.

To say they’re being driven by He Puapua ignores all the progress that has been made before 2019.

It’s not particularly surprising that a Labour-majority Government with a significant Māori mandate would be embedding various Māori kaupapa across a range of areas.

Even National, which is highly critical of implementing any work ahead of a nation-wide conversation, did exactly that in years gone by.

Things like kohanga reo and kura kaupapa schools, Treaty settlements, Whānau Ora and papakainga housing were all introduced or progressed under a National government, and in partnership with the Māori Party.

Alongside that, Labour over the last 3.5 years has started to put in place ‘by-Māori, for-Māori’ programmes in the Corrections and Justice system.

An overhaul of Oranga Tamariki is also underway – something politicians of all stripes can agree is much needed.

Something the He Puapua authors and Judith Collins both agree on is that the country is mature enough to have a conversation about what shape greater partnership should take.

Yet, the scenes that played out in Parliament last week, including Te Paati Māori walking out of the House and accusations of racism and separatism, suggest the opposite.

When the so-called House of Representatives can’t have a mature debate, what hope is there for it leading one with the rest of the country?

Empowering Māori providers to run their own programmes and getting the cash to do so isn’t new – it’s been happening since the 1990s.

The debate that has broken out in recent weeks isn’t about whether Māori should have the resources to set up their own services, it’s centred on whether they should have as much as everyone else.

Despite the huge disparities between Māori and Pākehā, there’s still a decent chunk of the population who don’t want to see Māori have funding equal to their population, nor do they see the Treaty of Waitangi being about a 50/50 partnership.

Even the fact Pākehā is used to describe non-Māori in New Zealand is an outrage to some.

But if governments are going to wait for the whole country to catch up on race relations before making change, the demonstrable inequalities Māori already face will be significantly worse.

The irony of that being it will cost taxpayers even more money to try and resolve.

Addressing partnership starts with acknowledging the over-representation of Māori in a number of negative statistics across health, education, corrections, housing and many more.

On that basis the Government is already starting to fulfil the United Nations Declaration, and arguably National started that work.

This Government and future ones will also have to deal with decisions from the courts, such as the outcome of who has rights and interests in water, and Waitangi Tribunal rulings.

While there are some voters who will never see merit in responding to these sorts of issues, for the most part the compass has started to shift.

That’s been evidenced in how many local government councils are adopting Māori wards.

If a government wants to be re-elected it has to stay in tune with the majority of New Zealanders, and that’s a fine balancing act.

Labour has a majority because it picked up so much of the centre vote that had previously been won by National.

Sunday night’s poll suggests Labour hasn’t lost any of that centre ground, polling at 52.7 percentage points to National’s 27.

It could be argued there are more radical things that would turn the centre vote off than an increase in targeted and race-based funding and policies – a freeze on middle income public servants’ wages springs to mind.

But the toughest part of meeting the Declaration isn’t adopting policies and programmes to help lift Māori up – it’s about co-governance and what constitutional changes should be made to reach the required level of partnership and equity.

The National Party says the starting point appears to be 50/50 and claims that’s out of sync with what most New Zealanders would accept.

New Zealand is not the only country about to embark on this debate, it just so happens that for now we’re the first country to have launched into it.

Labour could have taken control of the narrative earlier on by proactively releasing the report.

Instead, it’s been driven by the Opposition, and to a certain extent Te Paati Māori.

In the coming weeks and months that will change when Cabinet finally makes its own position clear.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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