Maori Development Minister Tama Potaka (centre) with National MPs Rima Nakhle and Dan Bidois (Chair, Maori Affairs Committee) at the Kotahitanga Hui on Saturday.

National Maori Development Minister Tama Potaka has made it pretty clear that his party will not support ACT’s proposed Treaty Principles referendum Bill.

That decision is going to lead to some awkward Parliamentary moments, which are likely to see the coalition partners publicly divided.

ACT Leader David Seymour told supporters during the campaign that a referendum on the Treaty would be an ACT bottom line.

If he couldn’t get that, ACT would not join a coalition with National but instead vote for legislation on a case by case basis, he said.

So Potaka’s words on RNZ yesterday present Seymour with the reality that he could end up defeated and humiliated over the referendum proposal, the brave words of the campaign rendered meaningless by political realities.

“We will not be supporting a referendum,” Potaka told RNZ yesterday.

“My absolute focus is to acknowledge the Treaty is the foundational document that started this country.

“Past, present and future, it is fundamental to our nation.

“And there are a few things about treaty settlements that continue to be unresolved, and we need to address them.”

In the same vein, Potaka was full of praise for the weekend Kingitanga Kotahitanga Hui at Ngāruawāhia, at which he represented the Government.


“I think there was a diversity of thought at the hui and a diversity of opinion, but there was an absolute unity in Kotahitanga around core Maori community and iwi leadership to come together and to reflect on not only engagement with the government but more importantly on where we’re going as Maori communities and as iwi,” he said.

It is becoming increasingly clear that ACT is going on a limb over its view that the Treaty is of decreasing relevance to New Zealand society.

ACT leader David Seymour will get some support for that view, for example, from the ethnologist Anne Salmond, who has argued that Lord Robin Cooke’s 1987 Appeal Court decision declaring the Treaty had defined a partnership was incorrect.

But Seymour extended from that to question the overall role of the Treaty.

“We don’t regard the treaty as a partnership; that’s a misinterpretation that has grown out of the land’s decision nearly 40 years ago now,” David Seymour told RNZ yesterday.

“I think it’s important to recognise that we’re not actually in the 1970s. New Zealand is a modern, multi-ethnic liberal democratic state with people from all different types of backgrounds and all different characteristics, many of which have actually got nothing to do with their race.”

Seymour said New Zealand society needed to stop “framing everything as being a binary racial relationship.

However, that is how Maori see things.

But consistent with what he told RNZ, leaked documents last week confirm that Seymour’s proposed Treaty principles Bill would not actually mention Maori.

It is proposed that Seymour’s Bill go to a Select Committee, which presumably would be the Justice Committee which is chaired by the Maori National MP, James Meager and which has only one ACT MP, Tood Stephenson, among its 11 members—who include one Green and one Maori MP and three Labour MPs.

There are two options open for the Select Committee

It would effectively hijack the Bill, draft a set of Treaty principles and omit the referendum.

Potaka almost left the door open for that option in his RNZ interview yesterday.

“A treaty principles bill that looks for a referendum we think is unhelpful and divisive, and we have no commitment or intention to support it,” he said.

However, there is a view within New Zealand First that the Government needs to spell out the limits to the application of the Treaty.

No one has been more forthright on that than the current Justice Minister, Pual Goldsmith, whose Ministry will play a critical role in advising on any Treaty Principles Bill.

In a 2009 paper for the Business Roundtable, Goldsmith suggested too much emphasis was placed on the Treaty.

At the core of his argument is a concern that the Treaty as a living document becomes an infinite debate between the Crown and Maori.

“The legalistic and unhelpful notion of a treaty partnership, which, anachronistically for modern New Zealand, implies two different peoples looking at each other across the negotiating table forever more, needs to give way to a more realistic view of the Treaty of Waitangi,” he wrote.

“In this alternative view, we see the treaty for what it is: an historic contract between the British and Maori chiefs that contributed to the formation of the modern, democratic state that is New Zealand, where every citizen now shares citizenship on the same basis.”

So there could be some move by National and (or) New Zealand First in the Select Committee to try and define a set of Treaty principles which would not go to a referendum.

That would seem unlikely, but if it did eventuate, it would encounter stiff opposition from the Maori.

King Tuheitia indicated that on Saturday.

“There’s no principles,” he said.

“The treaty is written.”

And he disputed the idea that the Courts could interpret the Treaty.

“Don’t look to the courts to understand the Treaty. Look to the Marae,” he said.

So, the most likely scenario now is that behind the scenes, the Government and Maori will begin quiet talks on how to go forward.

ACT will get its day at the Select Committee, and the most likely outcome from that would be a recommendation that Seymour’s Bill not proceed.

National would not make a Parliamentary vote on that recommendation a conscience matter and would vote to support the Committee recommendation.