The Government should show leadership by addressing the controversial He Puapua report and widening it to a broader constitutional debate, writes columnist Peter Dunne. National, meanwhile, should stop the cynical fearmongering.

Whenever we next feel the need to pat ourselves on our national back about how well we are doing as a modern, inclusive bicultural nation we should pause to reflect upon the way our leaders are handling the He Puapua debate. Seldom has an important issue requiring public debate and consideration been so mishandled by all parties involved as the debate about the He Puapua report has been to date.

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The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, with New Zealand being one of only four countries to vote against it. Helen Clark’s Labour government did not support the Declaration because it did not consider it fitted our constitutional arrangements, or the pattern of Treaty of Waitangi settlements. The Key government reversed that decision in 2010 in accord with its confidence and supply agreement with the Maori Party. The He Puapua report has its origins in the Key government’s commitment in 2014 to develop an action plan to give effect to the Declaration. In 2019, the present Government set up a working group to develop options for what the action plan might look like. The working group’s report was presented to the Government at the end of 2019, but, like so many other things, languished, allegedly because of the advent of Covid-19, and never made it to Cabinet.

From that point onwards, the hitherto orderly process seems to have gone somewhat off the rails. Because the report was never considered by the Cabinet, it has not seen the light of day. In the circumstances, the Prime Minister has been able to argue that this was because the report did not represent government policy, so therefore did not need to be released to the public. That may be technically correct, but a more likely explanation is a political one. Given some of its recommendations, even though they have never been endorsed by the Government, the report would have been extremely incendiary had it made its way into the hands of New Zealand First, never known to shy away from race-based politics when its back was against the wall, as it was last year. In turn, a New Zealand First campaign about He Puapua, conspiracies and secret agendas would have badly overshadowed the “referendum on Covid-19” election Labour so desperately and successfully made it.

That political caution was understandable, perhaps even prudent, given the circumstances of the time, but the Government’s subsequent actions have not been nearly as noble or well-intentioned. It is still to release the paper six months after the election, even though New Zealand First is now off the scene. Moreover, making Willie Jackson, one of Labour’s more stridently partisan and least conciliatory ministers, the minister responsible, virtually ensured that what should have become a mature and constructive public debate about future options would degenerate into the nasty, divisive spectacle some seem determined to make it.

But if Labour’s secrecy lit the initial fire of doubt, National’s subsequent response has fanned it into a raging inferno. National’s leader has played a cynical game – referring to the document and its proposals cautiously and in legalistic, constitutional tones in the House, but far more blatantly damning it as separatist, race-based politics in the more comfortable and less critical hinterland of her regional party conferences. As she would have it, the Government has already secretly agreed, without any public discussion or consultation, to New Zealand having dual government and legal systems within the next 20 years, with the new Maori Health Authority being the first step along that path. Given the lack of specific evidence to support that claim – hard to get in any case since the report has never been near the Cabinet – her constant assertions risk looking like New Zealand’s version of Trump’s claims that he really won the last Presidential election.

More significantly, neither Sir John Key, the Prime Minister who committed to the action plan that led to He Puapua, nor his successor Sir Bill English have offered any endorsement of Judith Collins’ views. An earlier National Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, has been blunter, saying that there is nothing to fear from the debate that He Puapua will engender, although he concedes the Government could have been more upfront in its handling of the issue.

In many senses, Bolger’s assessment is correct. As an open society, New Zealand should have nothing to fear from a robust debate about its governance and constitutional future, although that needs to be framed more broadly than the confines of the He Puapua report. This is the time for a full, properly constructed national debate on all aspects of our current constitutional arrangements, including our future links to the British monarchy and whether we become a republic within the Commonwealth, and what that might look like, as well as the role of Māori as tangata whenua, and the place of the Treaty of Waitangi.

There was an opportunity for the National Party to pick up this challenge, and show some leadership, but instead it seems to have lapsed into the more traditional conservative response of stroking fears and prejudices. If the latest Newshub opinion poll is to be believed, the tactic has so far backfired with the public, with the National leader’s approval rating plummeting.

Nevertheless, the Government’s currently ambivalent approach to the issue is creating a vacuum for others to exploit more skilfully than National has been able to do so far. So, instead of continuing to fudge and downplay the issue, Labour needs to take ownership of its work, release the report with a statement as to its current status, and then oversee a period of public reflection and debate upon it, while the full truth and intent of its proposals can be analysed, misconceptions cleared up where they occur, and a clear process established for resolving them.

The longer Labour keeps trying to pretend there is nothing to see because the report has not yet been considered by the Government, the more public suspicion risks being aroused. If Labour is not willing to go down the He Puapua path, then, like Helen Clark’s government in 2007, it should say so – unequivocally and soon. Similarly, if there are parts of the report it is willing to consider, it should indicate those and seek public discourse about them. Although National’s fearmongering is winning it no friends at present, Labour cannot assume that means people will just let it do as it wishes on the question. Rejecting National’s approach does not mean they have automatically adopted Labour’s position.

At the moment, both Labour and National are playing games with He Puapua. National is treating it like a dog with a bone, while Labour is trying to pretend the whole thing is nothing but a side issue. Yet, the issues will not go away. Whether the government likes it or not, we have an obligation as a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to produce an action plan of how we plan to give effect to it within our country.

This means the Government will have to engage with New Zealanders about what the Declaration means for New Zealand today and its future implications. At the same time, when wider constitutional considerations are also looming, it would make good sense to draw the two elements together into a wider and more thorough constitutional debate. To that end, if Labour was serious, it would be moving to establish a defined, independent public process, under the guidance of a credible, senior minister, prepared to work across boundaries to achieve national consensus. Sadly, it does not seem brave enough to do so. Hence the current hiatus.

Labour’s current inaction does not excuse the tone and divisive nature of National’s response. As the party that committed New Zealand to the Declaration while in government, and thereafter to the preparation of the action plan, National has not only reneged on its past commitments but also wasted a huge opportunity to take the high ground on this issue. Its role should have been to hold the Government to account for doing too little, too quietly. By turning its back on its previous role, and opting instead to play the separatist card, National is simply demeaning itself.

Overall, sadly, both major parties are failing New Zealanders on this issue. Neither Labour’s ongoing timidity nor National’s crassness are currently providing the type of leadership the open, tolerant, pluralistic society we like to think we have in our country deserves.

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