Monday, January 22, 2024

Graham Adams: Treaty referendum continues to alarm media

TVNZ journalists decry ACT’s principles bill.

Before last October’s election, mainstream journalists often reassured their audiences that Christopher Luxon wouldn’t go near a referendum on the Treaty principles if he became Prime Minister. They said he had ruled it out — although if they had listened carefully they would have realised that he mostly stuck to the line that a referendum would be “divisive” and “unhelpful” and that it wasn’t “National Party policy”. That is clearly not ruling out anything, but some journalists preferred to hear something he hadn’t said.

Less than a fortnight before the election, a Newshub headline announced: “National Party leader Christopher Luxon dashes Act plans for Treaty referendum” but in the interview he came nowhere near ruling it out.

Several weeks later, to the surprise of many, ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill popped up in National’s coalition agreement with the party. Those opposed to a referendum were relieved, however, that the clause promised nothing more than the government would “Introduce a Treaty Principles Bill based on existing Act policy and support it to a Select Committee as soon as practicable”.

A surprising number of senior journalists obviously didn’t understand exactly what the clause mentioning “existing Act policy” was referring to. How else could you explain Newshub last Friday describing a leaked draft of a Ministry of Justice paper on a Treaty bill as a “bombshell” that revealed Seymour’s proposed principles? They have been public knowledge for some time.

It is true that the wording of the suggested second principle has been changed in the leaked draft but only slightly. Act’s election campaign policy stated, “The New Zealand government will protect all New Zealanders’ authority over their land and other property,” while the leaked version says, “The New Zealand government will honour all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and property.”

The only significant news for anyone who has been paying attention was the date a Treaty Principles Bill is likely to be introduced to Parliament — May 31, 2024.

The paper’s advice that such a bill would be “highly contentious” was so predictable as to be banal and the lament about a “lack of consultation with the public on the policy development prior to select committee” indicated whoever wrote it needs to get out a lot more. Seymour has been advertising his intention to redefine the Treaty principles for two years now.

Furthermore, Seymour has suggested a nine-month select committee period, which would give all New Zealanders ample time to put their views forward. And if the bill isn’t introduced until the end of May, there are still four months until then to engage the public on the issues.

One unfortunate result of the mainstream media having paid scant attention to the detail of Seymour’s plans is the misunderstanding that he is trying to rewrite the Treaty articles themselves. In fact, he’s trying to distil their essence into a form (ie principles) suitable for a 21st century multicultural liberal democracy — much in the same way as the Court of Appeal did when it came up with the business-like notion of a “partnership” in 1987 when corporatism was newly rampant.

The reason a summary of the Treaty principles is required, of course, is because the English and Maori versions aren’t able to be easily reconciled. How successful ACT’s attempt will be to reinterpret the thrust of the Treaty articles to an agreement between the Crown and all New Zealanders — rather than between the Crown and iwi — remains an open question.

Whatever the exact wording in the bill that is ultimately introduced to Parliament, TVNZ journalists are now trying, once again, to find reassurance that a referendum will never take place. On Friday, 1News’ deputy political editor, Maiki Sherman, asked Paul Goldsmith (who will introduce the Treaty Principles Bill as Justice Minister) to rule out a plebiscite. However — like his boss — he is not definitively ruling one out either.

Goldsmith: “We have a coalition agreement with Act to support a bill to select committee and that’s as far as our commitment goes.”

He also issued a statement to 1News that read: “The coalition agreement is clear that the government will support a bill on Treaty principles to first reading. However, Christopher Luxon has been clear that National has no intention to support it beyond that.”

Against reason — and blindly ignoring the classic political sidestep of having “no intention” — Sherman interpreted these statements as a firm no: “Just to reiterate that again — the Prime Minister says National will not back this issue beyond select committee, which means it will not come into force in this country.”

Of course, he didn’t say that at all.

Sherman then tried to bolster her idiosyncratic interpretation by adding a personal warning: “Christopher Luxon will not backtrack on that [promise]; he will not do a u-turn on that, because if he did that it would be his political undoing.”

Trying to hold Luxon to a promise he didn’t explicitly make is more likely to be TVNZ’s undoing than the Prime Minister’s. In the run-up to the election, Sherman and her understudy, Maori affairs correspondent Te Aniwa Hurihanganui, presented a one-eyed view of Maori issues and now seem determined to ignore the inconvenient truth that just three months ago the three coalition parties were elected after each had campaigned vigorously on reversing moves towards co-governance.

Sherman and Hurihanganui can both huff and puff about the perils of a referendum as much as they like but by doing so they will be alienating a significant proportion of their audience. After all, a Curia poll in October showed 45 per cent support for holding a referendum, while one published by Stuff in mid-September showed 48 per cent agreed: “There should be a referendum on Māori co-governance, to end the confusion and let every New Zealander have a say.” Only 17 per cent opposed the suggestion and 34 per cent were neutral.

By focusing so relentlessly on the possibility of a referendum, TVNZ’s reporters also repeatedly miss the actual point of a Treaty Principles Bill — which is for Parliament to finally get around to codifying the principles. That task has hitherto been left to the courts and Seymour thinks it is Parliament’s rightful role, and one that should not be usurped by “activist judges”.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that TVNZ’s reporters are so completely out of touch with popular sentiment and journalistic ethics. Much of the mainstream media — including our state television broadcaster — sold their soul to the devil by agreeing to present the Treaty as a “partnership” in return for more than $55 million paid to them over the past three years. The result is that, by adopting that position uncritically, its journalists now often appear embarrassingly ill-informed on the Treaty debate that has swirled on social media and in independent media for years.

Sherman is certainly not alone. In late-November, RNZ’s Kim Hill blundered around on-air discussing a referendum with Maori journalist Annabelle Lee-Mather with neither apparently aware of what Seymour was proposing.

Now that the leaked Justice Ministry memo has further publicised Seymour’s proposal for redefining the Treaty principles, his opponents will have to explain to the public why a law mandating equal political and property rights for all New Zealanders is such a shocking idea.

Beyond the bluster and barely veiled threats being issued by Treaty activists, at some point soon they are going to have to declare that they do not believe all New Zealanders are equal under the law.

As Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan put it last year:

“David Seymour’s argument against critics is the simplest. He accuses them of protesting against equal rights for all. For his opponents to counter that, they would have to go where they haven’t yet and argue that Māori deserve more rights. It’s not an argument that will land well with many middle-of-the-road voters.”

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Anonymous said...

Every one who paid any attention knew exactly what David Seymour was proposing.
So either the MSM didn't pay attention, or they are lying, biased, corrupt, pathetic excuse for journalists, I think the later.

Hazel Modisett said...

Luxon, like the rest of his coalition govt, are public servants & must do as the public commands. If the public demands a referendum, then it would be undemocratic to block it. The vast majority of NZers will not abide being told what to do & how to do it by a radical minority, no matter how vocal & are fed up with 5 decades of subsidizing a group that has consistently bitten the hand that feeds it. Nuff already...

Scott said...

The media need to report the news not make it. They need to report fairly on the new government and practice journalism and not activism.

Anonymous said...

Why is the MSM not being warned - i.e. sanctioned - due to their bias which is damaging the Coalition?

Why is Minister Lee doing nothing in this regard?

Martin Hanson said...

Am I missing something, or has nobody pointed out the obvious – that the so far as the Treaty is concerned, the ‘principles’ and the original document are completely different things. The ‘principles’ are retrospective interpretations of what was agreed and signed in 1840. For political activists, such interpretations can mean anything that serves their purpose.
Unlike Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, Maori are ethically heterogeneous – like all other human groups. To suggest that they do not include individuals motivated by the need for political power is naïve to the point of infantile, but it seems to work in today’s politics. The ‘principles’ are products of political motivation, and therefore meaningless and should be ignored.

Anonymous said...

So RNZ's on-line report of 22 January ( stating: "Minister of Māori Development Tama Potaka, who attended the hui, earlier told Morning Report that a debate about the Treaty of Waitangi was needed, but the proposed referendum on Treaty principles would be divisive and unhelpful" should not be interpreted as National ruling it out?

I do so hope your interpretive belief proves correct.

Anonymous said...

For the reasons given in the article the PIJF should not be allowed to run its full course. The media (plural) should be told that if they don't report fairly and without political bias then their government funding will be stopped.

Flip said...

Arden's corrupted and corrupting PIJF needs to be stopped immediately. Why should the taxpayers of nz be subsidising the politically divisive and corrupted legacy media. It was set as a bribe and it needs to stop, NOW. If media can't make it off the public teat so be it, let them fall over. I for one am done with these clown's