The authors of He Puapua would have been wise to think about Marx’s words before applying their eager fingers to their collective keyboard. As the hapless King Louis XVI (1754-1793) discovered to his cost, asking the people what they want their rulers to do for them is fraught with all kinds of dangers. As any historian who has poured over the ordinary people of France’s Cahiers de doléances (Lists of Complaints) knows full well, once freed from his bottle, the Genie of Change will not be persuaded to return until the world is changed indeed.
2022, therefore, looks set to be dominated by two “C” words: “Covid” and “Co-Governance”. Both are certain to spawn variants of unpredictable virulence from the original strain. But, as happened with the Pandemic, the unfolding of the Co-Governance Debate is proceeding in ways determined by the decisions of Jacinda Ardern’s Government.
For many months now a group of distinguished Māori leaders have been formulating a detailed response to the ideas and proposals contained in He Puapua. This response, as per the Government’s wishes, will be presented to Ministers first. Only after its official receipt will the rest of the New Zealand population be asked for its view of how to best give expression to the principles of te Tiriti. You can put a ring around the prediction that the Māori and Pakeha views of how New Zealand should be governed will not be the same.
It is possible (but by no means certain) that the Māori response will be characterised by both its intellectual coherence and unmistakeable unity of purpose. If the principal Pakeha response is anything but a hot mess of outrage and anger, however, it will be a major miracle. Some Pakeha (many of them academics, public servants and, regrettably, journalists) will attempt to avoid doing the intellectual and cultural mahi inherent in the fraught processes of constitutional change by simply adopting the Māori proposals in toto. Others will decry the whole exercise as an unwanted and electorally unmandated pretext for sowing cultural division and conflict. They will not shrink from calling it treason, and branding its promoters – Māori and Pakeha – as traitors.
The great problem with the Government’s almost careless decision to foist this debate upon the nation is that, already, in the minds of just about all its participants, existential issues are at stake. Nothing less than the life, or death, of everything they hold dear is seen to turn on its outcome. Men and women will stop at very little to emerge victorious from such a struggle. History makes it chillingly clear that, if the end is a people’s survival, then all means are permissible.
What, then, is to be done? Having tossed the dragon’s teeth of co-governance into earth already ploughed-up by the divisions of Covid-19, how can Jacinda’s Government pluck from this nettle, danger, this flower, constitutional safety?
My own answer, for what it’s worth, is to make it clear that co-governance is just one more means towards the historic end that has always united the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders: a fair go for everyone.
A “revolution” that delivers co-governance to self-selecting ethnic elites, accountable to neither Māori nor Pakeha, will not stand.