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The Treaty Principles Debate – Trust the experts or public opinion?

In brief
  • “Experts” question indigenous rights in the hands of the majority.
  • Mihingarangi Forbes argues that Australia’s failed referendum is a warning against public decisions on sensitive issues.
  • In contrast, ACT calls for public involvement in defining Treaty Principles, challenging “expert”driven approaches.
  • Many oppose the referendum, fearing divisive debate, but misrepresent that it’s about rewriting the Treaty itself.

Criticism of the proposed Treaty Principles referendum

A central question looms over the debate regarding ACT’s proposed Treaty Principles bill and potential referendum: “What happens when we put the rights of indigenous people into the hands of the majority?”

This is the question posed by activist journalist Mihingirangi Forbes in her publicly-funded documentary “Trick or Treaty“.

Forbes cites the failed Voice to Parliament referendum in Australia as a cautionary tale. She attributes the outcome to racism, disinformation, and covert influences, highlighting potential risks in putting contentious matters to a public vote.

She glosses over the fact that The Voice initially had very high support amongst the public. However, in the lead up to the vote, the public became less supportive despite receiving more information about it and many prominent organisations supporting it. Ultimately, the public, including many indigenous, simply seemed to disapprove of the prospect of introducing race based division into the Australian constitution. 

Simultaneously, the failure of New Zealand’s Labour party, which went down in a “screaming heap,” was largely attributable to Labour’s race politics, according to Sky News’ Andrew Bolt.

The message in Australasia, according to Bolt, appears to be that race and identity based policies, when put to the public, are wildly unpopular.

ACT party leader David Seymour argues that the Treaty is one page and Kiwis have the right to an opinion and to participate in discussions regarding their nation’s constitutional arrangements. Specifically, Seymour contends that New Zealanders should have a say in defining the Principles, which derive from the Treaty’s articles and, according to him, require definitive clarification.

While it’s argued  by those in favour that the Principles include partnership, participation, and protection amongst others, there are also those who argue this is just a partisan position that many oppose. It’s worth noting the absence of any legislated statement of Principles, despite their increasing influence in legislation. This is a major part of the controversy surrounding this issue.

The Treaty Principles Debate - Trust the experts or public opinion? - Centrist
Who gets a say in what the Treaty ultimately means? Image: Geof Wilson

Opponents argue the public may lack the necessary depth of understanding to make informed decisions or they may harbour prejudiced views regarding Te Tiriti o Waitangi. These advocates suggest that leaving the interpretation to “experts” could circumvent these potential pitfalls. However, is there really an expert who is not just seen as partisan by those who disagree?

On the other hand, New Zealand is a democracy where Parliament is supreme. The legal “Treaty” that is actually in play emanates from the 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act and amendments, which Parliament can change at any time with only  a simple majority vote.

The failure of Labour’s “expert”driven decision-making and lack of public input

However, New Zealand’s recent history, under the Ardern/Hipkins government, calls into question the efficacy of relying solely on “experts”. This approach excluded public input, but instead of uniting the nation, these policies have led to increased division.

Acknowledging these criticisms, even Labour leader Chris Hipkins concedes that the failure to engage the public in decision-making regarding race-based policies has been a misstep.

So called “experts” fear divisive debate, but many are gaslighting voters

It’s ironic that many of the same “experts” sceptical that the public can be trusted to engage in a debate about the Treaty Principles are also gaslighting their audience about the debate itself.  

For instance, Dame Anne Salmond, a vocal opponent of ACT’s proposed referendum, is described as a Treaty expert(we would say “expert”), yet she refuses to allow Seymour to “rewrite the Treaty.” Other major mainstream media appear to endeavour to leave readers with the same impression: Namely that the Treaty itself is to be rewritten. 

However, it’s vital to clarify that the Treaty itself is not being rewritten; rather, the Principles are under debate for potential codification into law.

Image: Neil Ballantyne

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