National is taking no chances as it believes it is getting closer to power next year.
Leader, Christopher Luxon, reflects that confidence and prefaced comments at his northern regional party conference at the weekend by talking about “my Government.”
But the party was taking no chances that its hardline right-wingers might muddy the message.
So it locked journalists out of a remit debate which was to consider co-governance, particularly ewith reference to the controversial He Puapua document, presumably to ensure no random racist comments made it into the media.
National is usually much more open with its conferences; unlike Labour, it usually allows media to cover its remit debates and policy sessions.
Seasoned party members were surprised by the decision.
But the party has long been sensitive about public debate on race issues.
In 2016, at a central North Island regional conference, the chair manipulated the timings of speakers to ensure they had run out of time before Margaret Murray-Benge, the partner of Hobson’s Pledge leader, Don Brash, could move a remit opposing iwi participation clauses in reforms planned for the Resource Management Act.
She told POLITIK at the time that the party’s top table told her they feared she might sound racist.
So a remit calling on National to repeal any moves made to implement recommendations in the He Puapua report was put behind closed doors.
The proposal originated with the late Terry Dunleavy, a veteran and outspoken party activist, best known as a climate change sceptic but who also campaigned in various media outlets against He Puapua.
Dunleavy has a chequered career within the party, frequently clashing with the hierarchy and even Ministers when they were in Government. When he died, he was a member of the Papakura electorate; home to the former leader, Judith Collins.
But POLITIK understands his remit passed with little of the much-feared debate and no real opposition.
In that part of the conference open to media, Leader Christopher Luxon’s address, the loudest applause came when he said National opposed co-governance.
It was a carefully worded declaration.
First, he talked about identity politics.
“ It’s more about pushing people against each other rather than bringing them together,” he said.
“It is the assault on the fundamental principle that everyone’s vote carries the same value as everyone else’s and none more valuable than others.
“That should be a given in New Zealand.”
That appears to be a reference to the now-stalled legislation to create a Maori ward for the Rotorua Lakes Council where XYZ thousand Maori-roll voters would have the same number of Councillors as XYZ voter son the general roll.
In a move that could address that problem, the Government is now proposing to allow Maori to opt to go on to the Maori roll at any time rather than only after a census as at present.
That could enable a flow of Maori voters off the Rotorua general roll on to the Waiariki Maori roll and possibly even the ratio of councillors to voters up.
But at present, that is a problem specific to Rotorua.
However, Luxon went on in his next sentence to co-governance.
“There is an emerging co-governance program that Labour has sprung on the public without much warning or discussion,” he said.
“If it wants to undermine democratic principles, the Government should be transparent about it.
“But the National Party’s position is clear. We don’t support co-governance of public services.”
That was greeted with loud and prolonged applause.
The delegates may not have understood the heavy qualification Luxon had put on the party’s opposition to co-governance.
It would apply only to public services.
But even then, Luxon admitted that no one quite knew what “co-governance” meant.
“I think co-governance as a term is a big constitutional issue, and the government actually hasn’t come forward and actually decided or declared or debated it with the New Zealand people as to what it is or what it actually isn’t,” he told a media conference on Saturday.
Nevertheless, the He Puapua report that the conference voted to reject is being considered by Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson as part of the Government’s response to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The official UN handbook on the Declaration produced with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (of which New Zealand is a member) says: “The right to self-determination is affirmed in Article 3 of the UN Declaration, which states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
“This Article is connected to Article 4, which states that indigenous peoples, “in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
On the other hand, Luxon believes that a much more limited interpretation can be applied to the Declaration.
“The UN declaration was up for each individual country to interpret, and they were left to their discretion in many ways to work out how they could build deeper and better relationships with indigenous people in their respective countries around the world,” he said.
“Some countries ended up promoting language and culture, and so that’s why there’s no logical link between what we’ve seen Willie Jackson propose and actually what was signed at the UN.”
Ironically, despite his rhetoric, Luxon is actually in favour, in some circumstances, of governance being devolved to Maori.
He cited Treaty settlements involving the management of local natural resources in partnership, often with local governments.
“You know, that is an example of what we talk about and believe in this party, which is devolution and localism,” he said.
“It’s a principle around localism.
“Those closest to the problem should solve the problem.”
His problem was at the national level.
“ We’re amalgamating and centralizing and concentrating huge amounts of resource, huge amounts of bureaucracy, and creating two very different systems,” he said.
“I think we can do a much better job of actually creating one education system that has charter schools and innovation in it.”
Media: “Could Kura Kaupapa exist under your education system?”
Luxon: “We’re supportive of that in the context of treaty settlements as we have done in the past. So that’s not what we’re talking about. “
Luxon said the Government should take the case for co-governance to the people in a referendum as National had done with the flag.
“There’s been very good support for treaty settlements. I appreciate it. Not everyone was fully in agreement, but by and large, the vast majority of New Zealanders under successive governments have said yes, that’s a direction we want to head in,” he said.
“And the leaders at the time stood up and made the case for what they were doing.
“At the moment, the reality is people across New Zealand feel it’s being done by stealth, but they don’t even know where it’s going. Then why hasn’t it been explained to them? People don’t follow you if they don’t understand the why.”
National’s position on co-governance of public services is slightly more complex and ambiguous than Luxon’s rhetoric would suggest.
He said he did not support creating a “separate health system, a separate education system, a separate criminal justice system.”
But the only current concrete proposal from that list is the Maori Health Authority which National says it would abolish but then explains that actually, they would “fold” it into Health New Zealand.
“We can have one system with innovation and components within it that actually target people on the basis of need to live it through community organizations to the through iwi organizations delivered through businesses, for that matter,” Luxon said.
Luxon’s problem is that he is trying to satisfy two different electorates at once; on the one hand, his party’s hardline social conservatives (like the late Terry Dunleavy) and, on the other, the centrist voters who he needs to move away from Jacinda Ardern to vote National.
As he gets closer to Government, he will need to focus on the centrists more than the party faithful.