Will Labour Defuse the He Puapua Time-Bomb?

by Chris Trotter

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The number of people outside keeps growing. Where there had once been a harmless handful, there is now a good-sized crowd. And they keep coming. More and more of them. You can hear car doors slamming, footsteps, the soft murmur of exchanged greetings. These people can’t quite believe what they’ve been told, so they’ve come to see for themselves if the story is true.

It was unavoidable: this growing chorus of disquiet. The moment Nanaia Mahuta set the wheels in motion; the moment the relevant Cabinet Committee signed it off. From that moment the logic of te Tiriti began to unfold like a coiled fern. That’s the thing about documents like He Puapua: once written, you can’t unwrite them. Once they are in the world, you only have two choices. Either you embrace their conclusions and make them your own. Or, you cast them away from you like sin.

And, please, don’t blame Labour’s He Puapua problem on John Key. The advice he received on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was that it was a statement of good intentions – not firm intentions. New Zealand could take it – or leave it in a drawer. That made it a ploy – not a promise. A sop to that irritating old Cerberus, Pita Sharples. The equivalent of beads and blankets to keep the Maori Party sweet. For God’s sake! The man is a former currency trader. If the price is right, he will cut you a deal, make it happen, move on.

No, it wasn’t Key’s fault, or National’s. It’s always been an article of the Tory faith: you do what you have to do to win. Political transactions are about today, not tomorrow.

That’s always been the problem with the parliamentary left: it’s never been entirely sure what game its playing, or what the rules are. Spoiler alert: They have nothing to do with truth or justice. The game is called political survival; it’s about making it to – and hopefully through – the next election. So, the one thing you must never do is offer up hostages to Fortune. Why? Because Fortune always ends up killing them. He Puapua is living on borrowed time.

What the hell was Labour thinking? That it could commission a report, pre-programmed to deliver a set of radical Maori nationalist conclusions, and no one would notice? Is the caucus really so far gone in its wokeness that it genuinely believed the New Zealand people were ready to embrace the revolutionary changes mandated by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People? Christ on a bike! The same Labour MPs who refused to pass a Capital Gains Tax, are now, apparently, happy to be crucified for a te Tiriti approved tricameral parliament!

And naturally, their good friends in the Greens and Te Paati Maori are only too happy to drive the nails through their wrists. It was laughable really, watching Rawiri Waititi and Marama Davidson deploying in the New Zealand House of Representatives the same tactics that brought them success among gaggles of frightened Pakeha leftists.

Where a charge of racism can ruin a person’s career, the mere threat of its use is generally enough to secure ideological conformity. What a shock it must have been for Waititi and Davidson to discover that, on the floor of the House, that particular pistol is prone to misfire. It won’t stop them from pulling the trigger again and again, however. You just wait and see, it won’t be long before they’re accusing National and Act MPs of indulging in “hate speech” and demanding that Parliament’s Standing Orders be changed to shut them up.

Over the top? No. Silencing the Opposition’s investigative effort into the meaning of He Puapua, and its querying of the ultimate trajectory of the Labour Government’s “Maori separatist agenda”, was what Waititi appeared to expect of Speaker Trevor Mallard. And from his perspective, it’s easy to see why. Parliament has power – real power. What happens there matters. What’s more, Members of Parliament have privileges – real privileges. The most important of these being the privilege to speak freely without the threat of being bludgeoned into silence by defamation writs – or woke fatwas.

The crazy thing is, neither the Greens, nor Te Paati Maori, appear to have the slightest idea of what would happen if they got their wish: if, for some unknown reason, the Speaker did decide to muzzle the Opposition. They seem to have forgotten that the National and Act parties, between them, secured the votes of nearly one million New Zealanders. Do they honestly believe those million Kiwis will just shrug their shoulders and say: “Oh, well, that’s too bad. The Government has just thrust a dagger into the heart of parliamentary democracy, but we’re not going to do anything about it.” Honestly?

Labour knows what would happen. Almost overnight, the 400,000 former National Party voters who swung in behind “Jacinda” in 2020 would swing back. Deep down they know that He Puapua should never have been written; that it has the potential to kill their chances of re-election in 2023. That’s why Jacinda is slip-slip-sliding all over the place. She knows she risks a God Almighty row with her Maori caucus if she disowns He Puapua, and an even bigger one with Pakeha New Zealand if she doesn’t.

Unfortunately, Jacinda’s current strategy of artful prevarication has a strictly limited lifespan. The time-bomb that is He Puapua continues to emit a relentless tick-tock, tick-tock. Sooner or later – and preferably before that ominously silent crowd massing outside the parliamentary arena lends its voice to National and Act – the Prime Minister is going to have to defuse it.

Chris Trotter is a political commentator. He was the founding editor of the New Zealand Political Review, and is the author of No Left Turn: The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right-wing Politics.

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