I have long defended the mÄori party’s decision to enter government with National on two grounds;
- The decision is theirs to make on behalf of those MÄori who form their constituency, not the decision of well-meaning PÄkehÄ, or MÄori who vote for other parties. They made clear before the election that it might happen; there is no credible argument for bait-and-switch.
- By emphasising that the relationship of MÄori with Labour is at arm’s length, they send the signal that no party can afford to disregard MÄori as Labour did with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Furthermore, if they can make the relationship with National work (and admittedly that’s a pretty big if) then it puts the mÄori party in a strong strategic position to promote a bidding war for the MÄori policy agenda come the 2011 election and beyond.
The Key government’s record on MÄori policy so far has been patchy at best, with the decision to exclude mana whenua seats from Auckland governance, and a distinct lack of targeted recession relief for mÄori who are especially hard-hit by the recession, showing that there’s still a lot of work to do on that relationship.
So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard National Radio’s report this morning that Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be reviewed, thereby possibly withdrawing us from the other axis of evil of four countries who refused to do so. That can of worms wouldn’t have been re-opened unless there was a very good chance indeed of movement on the issue, since National would severely endanger its relationship with the mÄori party by ratifying Labour’s decision. So, this looks to me like the first symbolic shot in the bidding war for MÄori favour. Or perhaps the second – with the first being Mita Ririnui’s private member’s bill to entrench the MÄori seats.
The common objection from ideologues who opposed the mÄori party’s decision to work with National is that symbolic things are meaningless – a view taken directly from the subaltern MÄori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, who oversaw the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. In defence of the then-government’s decision to join that other axis of evil, he said:
Iâ€™m actually more than a little surprised the MÃ¢ori Party is prepared to back something which effectively offers indigenous peoples no more than aspirational statements.
The trouble is, unless preceded by banners bearing symbolic aspirational statements declaring a society’s position in principle, progress marches slowly. The Labour government recognised this in its grounds for refusing to sign the UNDRIP, viz, that it was possibly incompatible with our current laws. That’s the point best illustrated by another non-binding UN declaration, on Human Rights, whose most significant principle was that rights were not dependent upon local legislation but were declared to be universal, with the consequence that local legislation must change to meet the declaration where a conflict exists. By and large, local legislation in many signatory states has duly changed to meet the declaration, in spite of its non-binding nature. That is because its symbolic value is more than its practical value. (Amartya Sen is among those who makes this point, for example here). So it is with the UNDRIP – it presents an aspirational position toward which NZ may strive, along with practically everyone else.
Now, Power’s statement is carefully hedged with the words “as long as New Zealand’s current framework for indigenous rights cannot be compromised” – so actual policy change is still a long way off. But symbolic matters like this are a necessary condition for real progress, and the decision to review indicates that the government intends to take MÄori issues seriously.