Amid the chorus of media voices crowing that the latest Newshub / Reid Research poll heralds the demise of Judith Collins, most have overlooked one significant result within it. When asked by pollsters if Labour was being “separatist”, 38.7 per cent of respondents said “yes”.
Collins first described the Maori Health Authority as “separatist” in late April, and on May 1 she brought the report He Puapua and its radical constitutional implications to national attention, alleging the government was engaged in a stealthy race-based agenda. The Newshub poll was conducted from May 7-13.
This means that, in a matter of weeks, the Leader of the Opposition succeeded in convincing nearly 40 per cent of respondents that Jacinda Ardern is advocating some system of Maori separatism in the nation’s governance.
It’s true that marginally more of those polled — 43.6 per cent — said Labour wasn’t being separatist but 18 per cent also declared themselves undecided. Therefore, of those who had formed an opinion, Collins had persuaded nearly half that her case had merit.
That’s an impressive achievement given that the media has, almost without exception, dismissed Collins’ claims that the government has a covert programme for establishing Maori co-governance — as expressed in the recommendations in He Puapua as well as in a proposal presented by the Department of Internal Affairs to transfer 50 per cent of publicly owned water assets in the South Island to Ngāi Tahu ownership.
It’s true that Collins’ campaign has done nothing to boost support for National — at least so far — and nor has it kept her from a low ranking as preferred prime minister. But neither of these measures says anything meaningful about popular perception of the issues she has raised around the specific issue of racialised politics.
The lingering question after the weekend’s poll results that media interpreted as showing her “race-baiting” was imperilling her continued leadership was just how vigorously Collins would continue to pursue her campaign or whether she would quietly let it slip.
On Monday, she made it clear she wouldn’t buckle. “I just think most New Zealanders would be appalled if they realised what the government is doing behind their backs. I will call them out. I won’t stop,” she said.
“I’m going to keep on going, and the more that the Māori Party behaves like it does and the Labour Party does and Parliament gets all upset I ask the question, the more I’m going to do it.”
On Tuesday in the House, Collins showed she was as good as her word. Backed by Act leader David Seymour, she harried Ardern over the Ngāi Tahu document, leaving Ardern to wash her hands of it by passing responsibility to accounting giant PWC for commissioning it.
During the 10-minute exchange, Ardern’s loyal lieutenants Chris Hipkins, Nanaia Mahuta and Grant Robertson each rose to their feet to offer respite to their beleaguered leader with easy questions. In fact, Robertson stood twice to give Ardern a much-needed breather.
If nothing else, it must be galling for Labour MPs to see Collins enjoying herself quite so much in pinning their champion to the ropes. And any hopes they may have entertained after the weekend poll that she would tiptoe quietly away from the furore were well and truly dashed.
In short, like her political hero Margaret Thatcher, it is clear that Collins is not intending to back away just because the going is getting tough and some journalists have decided her time is up. As the former UK Prime Minister famously said in 1980: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U’ turn, I have only one thing to say. ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’”
The fact is, if Collins has already convinced nearly 40 per cent of voters she has a case about Maori sovereignty when much of the media on both the right and left have been hostile to her claims, it’s obvious that — as journalists themselves like to say — this story has legs, and it can go a lot further.
Collins will have plenty of time to explain all the facets of the story and exactly how stealthy and damaging, in her opinion, the government’s plans are. Even her most strident media detractors accept she is unlikely to be rolled for some time as leader — if only because there is no obvious replacement and, even if there were, the party cannot afford another palace coup so soon after the disastrous Todd Muller interregnum last year.
At some point, it may cross voters’ minds to query why Ardern will neither repudiate He Puapua and its recommendations nor strongly back it.
So far, in defending her approach of promoting Maori co-governance, the Prime Minister has relied on little more than appealing to the notion that the Treaty implies a “partnership” between the Crown and iwi.
Although the word has become common in describing the Treaty, most voters will still have no exact idea of what a partnership would mean in practice — not least, of course, because Ardern won’t explicitly tell them. That is the reason Collins has been trying repeatedly to get the Prime Minister to admit the new Maori Health Authority will have a power of veto over a separate authority responsible for the wellbeing of the other 85 per cent of the population.
Ardern will not say the word “veto” because she knows that confirming this fact will be disastrous for her. It is certain that had Newshub’s pollsters posed a question about the fairness of granting a veto to Maori, the numbers opposed would have been high. Most New Zealanders’ understanding of a fair partnership wouldn’t include a power of veto being granted to a minority of 15 per cent of the population to be exercised over the majority.
Ardern’s secondary line of defence for her policies is even weaker. It relies on making a huge leap from the fact that Maori on average have worse health outcomes than non-Maori under our present system to justify setting up a radically different one.
As she told Parliament plaintively in response to questioning by Collins earlier this month about a Maori veto: “We have tried the process of having a consultation style of approach. It hasn’t worked… so we’re seeking joint agreement.”
Given the fact that Maori are currently dying earlier than non-Maori, Ardern says, her government’s only viable option is working in an equal co-governance partnership.
This seems suspiciously like the claim There Is No Alternative made by the Fourth Labour government of Roger Douglas and David Lange to justify its overturning of the existing economic system. Of course there always is an alternative. With respect to health, the most obvious is to improve the present set-up without creating a separate overarching authority for Maori.
And as many commenters on social media have pointed out, men — both Maori and non-Maori — die on average much earlier than women but no one is proposing a separate health authority for them.
So far most journalists have obligingly run cover for Ardern on whatever plans she has for encouraging co-governance — in much the same way they uncritically backed her last year during her management of Covid and shouted down any dissenters
However, if Collins continues to raise public interest in the topic, journalists will be forced, sooner or later, to demand answers from Ardern to harder questions — of the kind the Prime Minister is obviously so keen to avoid answering in Parliament.
Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom.