There is surely an irony in the current row over whether the Prime Minister, Bill English, should appear at the lower Waitangi Marae for the celebrations this year.
On the surface, it looks like another page of the long chapter of Maori- Government tension that has seemed to define Waitangi day for so long now.
English’s Government (and that’s the same thing as the “crown”) has agreed on settlement after settlement with iwi.
Today, for example, the Treaty Negotiations Minister, Chris Finlayson, will be meeting with the ultimate tangata whenua from Waitangi, Ngaputhi to try and get that stalled negotiation on track.
The issue has been how the 120,000 strong iwi should be represented in the negotiations.
Finlayson wants to see whether he can “cut r through” what he calls “this procedural stuff.”
“I am trying to see whether we can get that all sorted so we can get the actual negotiations under way because I would very much like to see a commercial agreement in principle sometime this year.”
Ngapuhi will be the last of the big settlements and is likely to inject at least $250 million into the Northland economy.
Finlayson concedes that one of the attractions of the settlement process is that the payouts function as de facto regional development grants.
“Take for example a settlement I signed just before Christmas around Wairoa. That will see $100 million going into – one would hope – the Wairoa economy.
“And that’s currently a pretty damned depressed area.”
Finlayson is understandably proud of his record of settlements, and at National Party conferences he does a power point presentation with a map of New Zealand and settlements in their various states all marked out in different colours according to their progress.
It’s easier now to name those areas where there is no agreement. That list is headed by Ngapuhi but also Mainapoto, some remaining Whanganui and East Coast iwi, Great Barrier and the disputatious and obstinate Ngati Kahu of the far north.
Otherwise, all of the South Island and the rest of the North Island have either settled or have agreed in principle to settle.
What might surprise many, is that this news is greeted with general approval from the party membership.
Though it was only 11 years ago this the same party that campaigned on an “iwi/kiwi” slogan designed to whistle up opposition to the Foreshore and Seabed Act.
Now National keeps a tight lid on anti-Maori sentiment among its members.
True, the party still has the abolition of Maori seats in its manifesto and therefore doesn’t stand in them.
But that actually works as a nice little electorate deal for the Maori Party with whom National has a remarkably happy confidence and supply agreement.
The Minister at the centre of all this, Finlayson, is also a somewhat surprising person to find in his position.
A product of the Wellington legal establishment with a deep interest in the arts, he has ended up spending a substantial amount of his time on marae.
But he points to something else in his makeup that is important. He was brought up as a Catholic – like former Prime Minister Jim Bolger (and the current Prime Minister, Bill English.)
“I think the real credit (for National embracing the settlement process) needs to go not to Doug Graham but to Jim Bolger.
“he was the one who stood up at National Party conferences in the 90s, and he was told that if he signed the Ngai Tahu settlement, he would lose every seat in the South Island.
“He did sign, and he didn’t lose the seats.
“I think with Bolger you’ve got an unbelievable sense of social justice and a real commitment to do these things.
“I can see that sense of Catholic social justice coming through.
“And I think he was haunted by the fact that he grew up in rural Taranaki and never knew anything about what happened at Parihaka.
“I think it gnawed away at him; that’s why he’s the man who got the thing going.”
And Finlayson uses Bolger to help negotiate settlements even today.
He believes that the settlement process can actually align with National’s political beliefs.
“It fits very well into the National Party’s philosophy of respect fort property rights,” he says.
“We are a property rights party so one would expect us to have some kind of affinity with those rights even if they are different from traditional Pakeha property rights.”
John Key was not a Prime Minister to worry about his party’s fundamental philosophy, yet Finlayson says that he was totally supportive of the settlement process.
“I think be probably saw the value long term in it and he was prepared to support his Minister.
“There were some issues that troubled him.
“He would go away and think about them, but then he would come back and be very supportive.”
On Monday he will begin a trip around the remaining areas to settle — he’ll be able to do that within a week, a remarkable testament to how much progress has been made.
It is now realistic to talk about the end of the treaty settlement process.
And he thinks there has to be an end.
“I think there is a hell of a lot of support from the general public for this stuff, but they want to know that the settlements are full land final.
“So can important aspect of the work this Government is doing is to establish what is known as the Post Settlement Commitments Unit and there are two purposes for that.
One is to make sure that all the commitments that the Crown has undertaken are honoured.
“And secondly as a form of back protection for the crown so that we don’t get people coming and saying in 20 years time that they want to relitigate some of what has been agreed.
“It’s incredibly important to bed that in and to make sure that Government departments understand that these are crown obligations and have to be honoured.”
The post-settlement era raises what is likely to be the next big question.
Where will the treaty stand in terms of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements?
This has set Finlayson thinking and his next (and perhaps ultimate) mission is to try and sort New Zealand’s constitution out.
That doesn’t mean that he agrees with Sir Geoffrey Palmer that we need to start from scratch and write a Constitution.
Rather what he would like to do is to bring together the various documents and pieces of legislation which have a constitutional function — including the Treaty — and “tidy them up” to make our constitutional arrangements more coherent.
He says that once he’s finished the settlements and tidied up the constitutional documents that might be it.
Though he has every intention of coming back after the next election (and given his place on the National Party list, that is a certainty) his mind is turning to what he might do next.
He muses that a place on the International Criminal Court or something like that might be good.
Whatever, it will be something to do with the law.
In the meantime, a brief conversation he had with Bill English just before Christmas when he was allocating Cabinet portfolios sums his current work up.
“I said same jobs?
“He said yes, the same rank. Just get on with the settlements.”
So that’s what he’s doing.