If you’re scratching your head over the latest war of words between Andrew Little and John Key, you’re not the only one. Both have been talking about Maori sovereignty, and the implications of the Waitangi Tribunal’s decision that the Northern tribes did not cede sovereignty (supreme authority) when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi. If the leaders are going to do justice to this topic they need to do more than deliver sound bites.
The Tribunal members must be wondering whether either leader read their report because there it was clearly stated the finding related only to phase 1 of the enquiry. There are many ways to cede sovereignty and signing a Treaty is only one. There were events subsequent to 1840 where the chiefs may have ceded sovereignty and the Tribunal is yet to rule on those. So the leaders have jumped the gun a bit.
Let’s assume though, as the two leaders seem to have done, that the Tribunal will conclude the northern chiefs never ceded sovereignty in any way. How significant would this be?
Self-determination is not separatism
John Key was wrong to portray ‘self-determination’ as inevitably ‘separatist’. ‘Separatist’ has a very specific meaning when it comes to politics – it means taking one’s group out of the collective society entirely, disconnecting and becoming a completely autonomous state. ‘Self-determination’ on the other hand isn’t so dramatic – while it may mean creating a new autonomous state it can also mean simply enjoying greater choice, having more opportunities to make decisions that affect only yourself without disconnecting from wider society in either a political or any other sense.
It’s clear Maori aspirations vary widely – sure there are those calling for a separate Maori state but honestly, how many? Most of the literature on this issue says that ever since the 1840s, Maori aspirations for self-determination or ‘rangatiratanga’ stop well short of separatism. The more common goal has always largely been about Maori having greater choice without challenging the legitimacy of the existing state.
Self-determination can mean devolved social services
What then could Maori ‘sovereignty’ or ‘autonomy’ or self-determination mean in an everyday, practical sense? It could just mean having policies that are empathetic to Maori values, concepts and ways of doing things, and having Maori organisations involved in designing and delivering government-funded programmes to Maori. If so, that is the general ‘devolution’ model being used right now and the new sovereignty ‘discussion’ with Maori leaders might simply be about rolling this type of ‘sovereignty’ into new areas and increasing funding.
If that is where we’re heading though it is important to make sure that this model delivers the best services it can. It’s not smart to allow two separate competitive parallel systems to develop. Mainstream and Maori-centred services can each learn a huge amount from each other and its essential that they work together. If either type of provider takes the arrogant approach that they have nothing to learn from the other, users of those services – Maori or non-Maori – will pay the price. It is possible to see vestiges of this competitive thinking in education, where the devolution model was first tried. Hopefully that will be sorted with forthcoming education reforms. A more recent application of the idea, and one mercifully free of the competitive mindset, has been in the youth justice area with the Rangatahi courts.
There is nothing in this practical interpretation of ‘sovereignty’ to upset the apple-cart much, providing funding (for example, in health, welfare and education) is based on a fair assessment of need. This model of empathetic, inclusive social policy delivery is one that makes sense for other groups too. Finding a way to make it work for Maori will pay benefits long term for other minorities who might otherwise, like many Maori, find it hard to make the most of mainstream public services. It makes sense for other minorities to help design and deliver services so they are more effective for their communities. Sure, there may be some duplication of costs (for example, we may have two types of health providers for one community rather than one) but if the payoff is more effective policy – better outcomes for the dollar spent – then who can credibly complain?
Maori rights over the environment are a separate issue
The sovereignty discussion might turn to the issue of Maori authority over the environment. However Maori don’t need to win the sovereignty debate to justify their unique rights in this area. The unique rights of Maori with respect to the environment – rights which have led to co-governance arrangements over rivers for example – are not dependent on any decisions about sovereignty. They clearly emerge directly from the Treaty’s wording. It’s proving a challenge to get these rights honoured, but there is no question they exist.
So then what else could it be? The northern tribes could be looking for something as straightforward as embedding indigenous values in a written constitution, as has happened in recent years in Bolivia. It’s a shame more is not made of this creative and positive example.
Self-determination as the right to make laws for a certain area
Instead, as John Key speculated, Maori might be seeking something along the lines of the Native American territories where the tribes have freedom to set the laws that apply there and all – tribe members or not – must comply. Whenever this image is put before the New Zealand public it creates a predictable outrage. But even this interpretation of ‘sovereignty’ needs to be considered calmly and objectively.
Last year very nearly saw Scotland achieve territorial autonomy within the UK. Like Maori, the Scottish too were traditionally a tribal people (Scottish society was made up of clans). Rather than allowing descendants of those clans to vote on the issue of autonomy, all the people who chose to live, work and raise their children in present-day Scotland were given that right. The decision was made to acknowledge as Scottish those who realistically, in a day-to-day way, identified with Scotland – it had nothing to do with ancestry. That’s in stark contrast to the way the issue of occupation (or ‘colonisation’ in New Zealand) is dealt with here where only ancestry seems to count when it comes to constitutional issues.
That’s the challenge facing Maori tribes with aspirations to territorial autonomy. If they are able to build strong connections with the non-Maori who live alongside them within their local area, the goal of territorial autonomy (in whatever form) will be easier to achieve. But that’s a long bow right now. And if indeed a region were to speak with one voice on the issue of autonomy, who could reasonably object? As it turns out, Scotland chose to remain fully embedded within the UK. But that hasn’t meant there won’t be meaningful change in Scotland. In fact, New Zealand may well be setting an example for Scotland as we seem to be moving towards greater devolution.
No doubt all of these options will be discussed and debated at some point. But however the sovereignty discussion plays out, its essential that improving the lot of whoever lives here must be forefront in the mind of everyone involved. With authority comes responsibility. Political power shouldn’t be sought for it’s own sake but because of the opportunities it provides to improve our society.