Listening to the Prime Minister, I was reminded of the compelling final scene of the movie The Man Who Would Be King, in which Sean Connery strides bravely towards safety across a swaying rope bridge. Behind him, enraged tribesmen hack away furiously at the anchoring cables. Beneath him, a yawning chasm waits to swallow-up the foolhardy Scottish soldier.
Certainly, it is difficult to escape the notion that the Prime Minister perceives this present moment to be one of considerable historical danger.
Across this perilous gap between yesterday and tomorrow, the Prime Minister has suspended the Treaty. She offers us her hand – and bids us cross.
The problem with Prime Minister Ardern’s metaphor is that far too few New Zealanders believe the Treaty is strong enough to carry them across the chasm. They fear the chaos into which their country will be plunged if the bridge proves unequal to the burden imposed upon it. They simply do not share the Māori people’s unwavering confidence in a document once referred to by a Chief Justice of New Zealand as “a simple nullity”.
Even those enthusiastic about a bi-cultural future for Aotearoa-New Zealand are beginning to express their doubts about the “official” interpretation of the Treaty as a “partnership between races”. Dame Anne Salmond, for example, writing for the Newsroom website, reminds us that race is “a colonial idea with an ugly history, associated with slavery, genocide and the dehumanisation of others, and utterly inimical to respecting [New Zealanders’] ‘tapu and mana’.”
Pakeha conservatives, on the other hand, listen to what they judge to be the exaggerated and essentially self-serving claims of Māori historians and lawyers who would have us believe that te Tiriti o Waitangi is Magna Carta and the United States Constitution all rolled into one unchallengeable fragment of Holy Writ. Their reading of New Zealand history and New Zealand law simply cannot be squared with what is fast becoming the “official” explanation of the Treaty.
For far too many New Zealanders the Prime Minister’s invitation to step onto her bridge to the future is an invitation to catastrophe.
Perhaps there would be a higher level of confidence in the Treaty’s strength if the Prime Minister was better able to explain its corollary – “co-governance”. So eloquent on other subjects, Jacinda Ardern becomes uncharacteristically tongue-tied when invited to “sell” the concept behind what her critics characterise as Labour’s racially-charged and electorally unmandated policies – most particularly Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s “Three Waters” project.
This inability to explain co-governance is not restricted to the Prime Minister. The attempt by her Māori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, to reassure New Zealanders that they have nothing to fear from this “new” variant of democracy has succeeded only in frightening the bejesus out of them. If this is what lies on the other side of the chasm bridged by the Treaty, then the Sixth Labour Government should not be surprised at the number of Kiwis declining to make the journey.
In the wise words of Dame Anne: “Rather than seeing the Treaty as a ‘bridge’ across a chasm of misunderstanding, in the spirit of ‘pernicious polarisation’, perhaps Te Tiriti can be visualised as a meeting place where different groups of New Zealanders come together in a spirit of tika/justice, pono/truth, and aroha to share ideas, resolve injustices and seek peace with one another.”
There is no short-cut from our colonial past to a bi-cultural future. Surely, following this flood-ravaged fortnight, the Prime Minister realises that, when the waters rise in fury, bridges get swept away.
Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz.