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The Human Rights Commission’s role in the Treaty debate – Part 1

In brief
  • The HRC funded a poll claiming 70% of Kiwis support equal say in Te Tiriti o Waitangi decisions.
  • HRC Commissioner Paul Hunt’s remarks suggest the poll was undertaken to sway opinion against ACT’s proposed Treaty referendum.
  • Respondents appear encouraged to support Māori involvement in decision-making.
  • Only about a third of those answering had read the Treaty

The poll’s impartiality and political context

Recent headlines proclaim that “70% of New Zealanders want equal say in Te Tiriti o Waitangi decisions,” based on a poll funded by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission (HRC). 

To start, this is a somewhat surprising result considering that prior to the election, ACT was the fastest growing party in New Zealand. ACT’s internal polling indicated its gains were over concerns how the Treaty was being handled by Labour. ACT ended up surrendering some gains to NZ First, but NZ First is also against Maori sovereignty. 

The poll was conducted by Dr Claire Charters of the HRC but she has not provided a clear rationale for the poll other than a vague notion of promoting healthy relationships based on equality and alluding to human rights. Yeah, right.

It appears that HRC resources are being used to influence the public debate over ACT’s campaign promise of a Treaty referendum, with co-governance advocates hinting at civil disobedience.

HRC Commissioner Paul Hunt’s comments suggest as much.  Hunt says that a referendum on the Treaty should be with Māori agreement, whom he refers to as a Treaty partner, which is a partisan view on Māori-Crown relations. 

The Human Rights Commission's role in the Treaty debate - Part 1 - Centrist
“Who never read it? Raise your hand. Raise your other hand if you agree anyway.”

Specific poll questions and subtle portrayal of co-governance

The poll consisted of 7 sections to which respondents could give a range of answers. Some are straightforward like:  

Who has read the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi? 

As an aside, only about a third of respondents have read even the English version of the Treaty and more than half have not read any of the source documents at all. 

Other questions appear more loaded. For instance, under the section: “What are people’s views on how Māori and non-Māori should govern together?” participants are asked to agree or disagree to one of the responses, which is: 

“The country should move toward a partnership approach of governing equally shared between Māori and non-Māori. 

This is a not-so-subtle allusion to co-governance and Māori self determination. 

Respondents are asked to agree or disagree to the statement: 

“Overall, Māori should manage issues and be involved in making decisions that affect Māori.”

However, prior to providing an answer, respondents are given a series of statements that predominantly emphasise arguments in favour of Māori involvement in decision making (another euphemism for co-governance) as opposed to the Government making non-discriminatory decisions.  

Questions like ‘What’s important for the country?’ give respondents the opportunity to rate as important or not important the statement:

“Māori and non-Māori deciding together on an equal footing, how Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi is honoured.”

A deliberate effort to groom the public?

Notably, under this same section is the statement “A majority deciding overall how Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ The treaty of Waitangi is honoured”. 58% of respondents rated this “important”, with only 22% saying it was “not important”. 

These results suggest the majority, while having not read the source documents, still seem willing to agree to vague, pleasant sounding Treaty-related statements, yet prefer majority rule. This endorsement of democracy was not highlighted in the media reports regarding the poll. 

The sample includes 1,076 members from Horizon Research’s online panels and a third-party research panel of adults 18+. The total sample is weighted on age, education, gender, party vote 2023, region and ethnicity to match the New Zealand adult population. 

As advocates for Māori self determination and co-governance, Charters and Hunt would understand the importance of avoiding ambiguous language on topics pertaining to the nation’s constitutional framework. 

A suspicious person would say the poll was designed to avoid direct mention of co-governance and self determination, preferring euphemisms. And the survey amounts to using government funds, and the influence of their position, to groom the public to accept the HRC’s officers  partisan view of the Treaty.

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