The Human Rights Commission has appointed the chair of the Committee that produced the controversial He Puapua report to its staff.

Indigenous rights scholar and activist Professor Claire Charters is stepping into a role with the Human Rights Commission but will continue her work in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Law.

The appointment comes after Cabinet agreed last December to stop work on He Puapua.

That work was being done (in part) by the Human Rights Commission.

Professor Claire Charters, who chaired the group that produced He Puapua,  has been appointed to the Human Rights Commission to lead work on Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Last April, Maori Economic Development Minister, Willie Jackson, tasked the Iwi Leaders Forum and the Human Rights Commission with preparing a plan to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Poeples.

At the time, Jackson said He Puapua was not the Declaration Plan, nor was it Government policy.

“Reports like He Puapua and Matike Mai are part of a long history of reports on addressing Indigenous rights in Aotearoa and should be seen in that context,” he said.

(Makite Mai was a 2016 report on constitutional transformation in New Zealand led by the iwi Leaders Forum and chaired by Professor Margaret Mutu, and convened by constitutional scholar, the late Moana Jackson. The report advocated a number of constitutional models for New Zealand which amounted to co-governance.).

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt says the Commission has partnered with the National Iwi Chairs Forum to bolster its Indigenous leadership, including the appointment of Professor Charter.

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He said he was delighted to have her on board.

“She brings internationally recognised expertise on Indigenous Peoples’ rights, which will greatly benefit the Commission’s work,” he says.

In the new role, Professor Charters will provide tangata whenua leadership with a view to enhancing the Commission’s governance,” he said.

“She will also advise and support existing projects and mahi to advance understanding of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Charters was originally commissioned to prepare the He Puapua report by the Maori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta as a response to the UN Declaration.

In the 2019 report, she said it was driven by a rangatiratanga-centric approach; and “our understanding that te Tiriti is New Zealand’s constitutional foundation, and central to the realisation of the Declaration.”

She said New Zealand had made some important progress towards Declaration realisation by enabling Māori participation in kāwanatanga Karauna (state governance), “even if more can be done.”

“However, New Zealand is comparatively weaker in supporting the realisation of Māori self-determination, which we understand to be Māori control over Māori destinies.”

But last December Cabinet stopped all work on the development of a response to the UN Declaration.

Professor Charters

 has published and spoken widely on the Declaration, as well as comparative Indigenous constitutional rights in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, and tino rangatiratanga and tikanga Māori in Aotearoa.

She said she sees an opportunity within her new role to uplift the Indigenous rights work the Commission is undertaking.

“I’m looking forward to putting into practice a lot of my hopes and ambitions for constitutional transformation and the realisation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Progressing those rights is about honouring our tūpuna and ensuring future generations can achieve the vision set down in Te Tiriti o Waitangi to enjoy equality alongside all New Zealanders,” says Professor Charters.

Meanwhile, Meng Foon, the Kaihautū Whakawhanaungatanga-ā-Iwi Race Relations Commissioner, said the Forum’s selection and the appointment of Claire Charters was another step towards the Commission respecting and implementing te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“Claire has extensive experience working on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and that will be a huge asset as we support the implementation of the declaration here in Aotearoa, New Zealand,” said Foon.

National Iwi Chairs Forum Pou Tikanga Professor Margaret Mutu hoped the Commission’s joint initiative with the Forum would be one that the whole public sector could learn from.

“We relish this opportunity to work with Te Kāhui Tika Tangata to ensure that it is responsive and accountable to Tangata Whenua aspirations and needs,” said Professor Mutu.

The Government’s sensitivity over the whole issue of He Puapua and the constitutional questions it raises were on full display on TVOne’s “Q+A” yesterday when Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was asked about Three Waters with a clear hint that from him that its co-governance arrangements were up for review.

“We are looking at that again, and we haven’t made decisions on what the future of that (co-governance) arrangement will be,” he said.

Later in the interview, he said: “Am I committed to keeping it exactly as it is? No, I’m not. I’m not drawing a line. I’m saying it’s. ..” (at which point, host Jack Tame interrupted him ).

However, Hipkins did defend co-governance.

“Co-governance arrangements give Maori a seat at the table in terms of decision making, and that is it. Well, I would argue that that’s something that we signed up to when the treaty was signed,” he said.  

“In some cases, we don’t have governance; we actually have devolved responsibility.

“So it’s basically saying to Maori, you can make your own decisions, and we will devolve that to you.

“That’s not co-governance arrangements; it’s a degree of devolution.

“So if you look at in different cases, different models can apply.

“So the Maori Health Authority, it’s kind of a bit co-governance, but it’s also a devolution.

“It’s a bit like saying to minority communities you can make your own decisions in education. Kura Kaupapa,  Wananga; these entities are basically adopting a by Maori for Maori approach, and they have been fantastic and delivered great results.”

The Prime Minister’s comments and the appointment of the He Puapua chair to the staff of the Human Rights Commission, even though the Commission has theoretically been told to stop work on He Puapua, add to the cloud of ambiguity which surrounds Government policy on Maori constitutional issues.

Little wonder then that yesterday ACT Leader was quick to say co-governance is now everywhere, but it has never been openly discussed or debated.

“Nobody in Government has ever asked whether we want it,” he said.

.Opposition to co-governance would be a key election campaign issue for ACT and an important part of any coalition negotiations, he said.