The cat is well and truly out of the bag over the hitherto secret report He Puapua – no thanks to the media, which seemed to be in no hurry to dig into it when ACT began asking awkward questions in Parliament last month (see the comment posted yesterday by Trev1 under Joyous hugs and kisses as democracy takes another hit). Even now, some in the press gallery are playing things down with a “nothing to see here, folks” line.If He Puapua (translation: “a break”) were to be adopted as policy by the government that commissioned it, the creation of Maori council wards and provision of council seats for unelected iwi representatives would be just the first step in a revolution that would entrench racial separatism over broad areas of our constitutional arrangements and methods of governance. Needless to say, this is potential political dynamite.
Jacinda Ardern says the report wasn’t released because the government was concerned it would be misconstrued as government policy. It’s been pointed out, in the government’s defence, that the report hasn’t been considered by Cabinet and remains just that: a report by a working party. But the very fact that it was kept under wraps makes Labour look shifty.
At best, Ardern looks as if she doesn’t have much faith in the public. It never looks good when a prime minister doesn’t trust voters with important information on the pretext that they probably wouldn’t understand it.
As Auckland political writer Graham Adams noted in an excellent analysis, critics are calling He Puapua an undeclared government manifesto. It took the intervention of the Chief Ombudsman, using the Official Information Act, to drag it into the sunlight.
The author of the report says the working party wanted it made public. Perhaps the government should have taken their advice, because now it has is a major damage control exercise on its hands. It has delivered a gift to the embattled Judith Collins and to David Seymour.
If Labour was genuinely worried that the opposition parties would make political capital out of He Puapua, the smart tactic would have been to pre-empt them by making it public. That would have taken much of the sting out of the backlash. More to the point, it would have been the proper course to take in the interests of transparency, which this government professes to be committed to. If Labour is genuinely interested in promoting debate on how best to eliminate Maori disadvantage, as Ardern has indicated in the House, then the report would be a starting point. As it is, Collins and Seymour are able to paint Labour as a party with something to hide.
It’s true, then, as my mother always said, that honesty is the best policy. But Labour has given the impression its default setting is one of dissembling and prevarication.
Nonetheless, the government has one potent propaganda point in its favour. It can argue that by commissioning He Puapua it was merely following through on the National government’s decision in 2010 to sign up to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That inexcusably furtive act, which I wrote about here, shows that National is just as capable as Labour of going behind our backs.
I eagerly await John Key’s explanation for his shameful role in this affair, but he’s probably in a board meeting somewhere. Or playing golf.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.