The door has not been completely closed on ACT’s proposed Treaty referendum – so what is the new government proposing?

ACT leader David Seymour once said a referendum on the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi was a “bottom line” for his party in any coalition government.

While ACT didn’t get that commitment in its coalition agreement with National and New Zealand First, it has managed to wrangle some initial support for its Treaty Principles Bill. 

ACT’s coalition partners have both only committed to supporting the Bill to the select committee stage, meaning it’s unlikely to progress further than that – however that still leaves the door slightly ajar for a potential referendum. It also leaves the door wide open to public debate on the Treaty and its principles.

So, what is the Treaty Principles Bill? What does it seek to do? And what do other leaders have to say about it?

What did ACT want in the coalition agreement?

The ACT Party proposed passing a bill redefining the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi which would then be confirmed through a referendum.  

The Labour government of 1989 previously set out Principles for Crown Action on the Treaty of Waitangi. These principles were developed to help guide the government’s actions on matters relating to the Treaty. 

Those five principles were:

  • The Kāwanatanga Principle – that the government has the right to govern and make laws.
  • The Rangatiratanga Principle -  that iwi have the right to organise as iwi and control the resources they own.
  • The Principle of Equality – that all New Zealand citizens are equal before the law.
  • The Principle of Co-operation – that iwi and government must co-operate on major issues of common concern.
  • The Principle of Redress – that the Crown accepts responsibility to provide a process to resolve Treaty grievances.

The ACT Party wants to rewrite those and replace them with these three principles of the Treaty:

  • All citizens of New Zealand have the same political rights and duties.
  • All political authority comes from the people by democratic means.
  • New Zealand is a multi-ethnic liberal democracy where discrimination based on ethnicity is illegal.

What did ACT get in the coalition agreement?

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said just a couple of weeks ago that a referendum on the Treaty “would be divisive and unhelpful”.

However, both National and New Zealand First, have since agreed to introduce a Treaty Principles Bill based on ACT’s existing policy and support it to a select committee “as soon as practicable”.

What does that mean?

This means National and New Zealand First will support the first reading of the Treaty Principles Bill, which would send it to a select committee.

Select committees usually ask for public submissions on a bill, which means the principles of the Treaty will still be up for public debate, even if National and New Zealand First have not committed to supporting the bill any further.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters told reporters on Friday that whether the bill goes any further “will depend on the wisdom of the submissions to the select committee”.

What are people saying about the bill?

Waikato-Tainui leader and former New Zealand First MP Tukoroirangi Morgan said ACT’s bill is “an all-out attack” on Māori that “will roll back race relations in this country by 50 years”.

“This bill is just an act of stealth so if there are enough submissions that go to the select committee, then it will continue into the final stages and we can’t let that happen,” he told Breakfast on Monday.

Te Pāti Māori has also criticised National for leaving the door open for a referendum.

“Christopher Luxon’s legacy will be leading the most anti-Māori, anti-Tiriti government Aotearoa has seen in generations,” it said in a statement on Friday.

“Our message to this government is clear: we will not allow Pākehā to determine our rights as tangata whenua. This new government must prepare for a Māori revolution if a referendum ever does go ahead.”

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger was critical of a Treaty referendum prior to last week’s coalition agreement.

“These are sensitive issues,” he told RNZ. “If they're going to be considered at all they have to be considered in a calm and reasonable way and referendums are not there for calm and reasonable discussion."

But ACT’s policy statement maintained this is “a debate worth having”. 

Party leader David Seymour said he predicted one of two outcomes.

“One is that the world has gone mad, people really do want to be part of a quaint and illiberal South Pacific constitutional experiment. I predict our future would be bleak, but we’d know where we’d stand.

“The other, much more likely, is that we would see a sudden end to the nonsense. The jig would be up. We would assert as a country that we are a modern, multi-ethnic, liberal democracy looking to go forward in the world.”

Pulling back on other policies

Even without a referendum on the Treaty principles, the new coalition government has still agreed to a raft of other policies aimed at ending co-governance.

These include reinstating the right to referendums when introducing Māori wards on local councils, disestablishing the Māori Health Authority / Te Aka Whai Ora, and giving public service departments an English primary name unless the department relates specifically to Māori.

The new government is also promising a comprehensive review of all legislation that includes “the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” and either replacing or repealing those references. This won’t apply to legislation relating to Treaty settlements.

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