Year 176

Around this time of year I usually try to do a bit of a stocktake of the previous 12 months, taking in the broad landscape of the Treaty relationship. It is intended to be a reflective overview, taking a step back from issues to get perspective and context. But this year will be a little different, because while there is as ever a whole lot of activity taking place across a range of law and policy, when looking back at the Treaty’s 176th year, scanning the horizon, there are two big issues which, it seems to me put everything else in the shade: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Te Ture Whenua Māori reforms. Both of these issues have been bubbling away for some time but it is within the last 12 months that things have really heated up on both fronts. And both have seen significant developments on the eve of Waitangi Day.

First, the TPP.  It seems to me that there are many things to be concerned about with regards to the TPP. One area is the way in which Māori rights will be affected. I’ve set out the reasons why, despite the Treaty of Waitangi exception clause, I think the TPP is problematic for Māori in a paper that I co-authored with colleagues from the University of Auckland. I’ve tried to express some of the same points in a few media spots over the last little while (see here and here and here). Essentially, the central issue is that the TPP gives parties without Treaty of Waitangi obligations an interest in NZ law and policy in areas where Maori already have concerns about Treaty compliance. The exception is weak in part because it relies on NZ government to have the will to stand outside the general rules of the TPP (and we’ve seen with issues such as foreshore and seabed and water rights that the government is often reluctant to recognize Treaty interests at the best of times). Other TPP parties may still challenge NZ govt action under the exception (even if not the NZ government’s interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi). And the exception clause does not address issues that do not involve favourable discrimination for Maori (for example, a universally applicable ban on fracking might be deemed necessary to protect Māori interests under the Treaty and such action would not be covered by the exception clause). Under all of this of course is a process that has fallen well short of the expectations around consultation that arise from Treaty principles and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But, as I say, there are many other aspects of the TPP that are worrying. The full text of the TPP is available on MFAT’s website and for good analysis and information on different parts of the TPP, I would encourage everyone to take a look at the series of expert paper that are available here.

The review of Te Ture Whenua Māori Act/The Māori Land Act 1993 has also illustrated a disturbing “government knows best” attitude. In May 2015,  the government released a draft bill (or ‘exposure bill’) for discussion and consultation purposes. I have noted previously that I thought the original consultation process was entirely unsatisfactory for a major reform of a complex piece of legislation which will have significant consequences for Māori. The review of Te Ture Whenua Māori Act was subsequently the subject of three urgent claims made to the Waitangi Tribunal. The Tribunal convened an urgent hearing of these claims in November and December 2015. Yesterday, just a day before Waitangi Day, the Tribunal released a draft chapter from its report on these claims. The release of the draft chapter ahead of the remainder of the Tribunal’s report is explained in the Presiding Officer’s letter of transmittal as follows:

The tribunal suddenly faces the situation that the Crown has decided to embark on a further series of ‘informational hui’ on 9 February 2016 only weeks before our full report was to be released. The tribunal has reached conclusions on the treaty implications of the process of the review and the consultation undertaken by the Crown with Māori.

Because of the importance of those conclusions, we consider it is very important for the Crown and the February hui participants to at least have some opportunity to be informed as to the tribunal’s views on the treaty implications of the review process and consultation methods utilised now, rather than afer those hui conclude.

The Tribunal found that

the Crown will be in breach of Treaty principles if it does not ensure that there is properly informed, broad-based support for the Te Ture Whenua Maori Bill to proceed. Maori landowners, and Maori whanau, hapu, and iwi generally, will be prejudiced if the 1993 Act is repealed against their wishes, and without ensuring adequate and appropriate arrangements for all the matters governed by that Act.

The Tribunal recommended that the Crown ensure there was  properly informed, broad-based support for any amendments to Te Ture Whenua Māori Act. If such support cannot be achieved for the current proposed reforms, then, the Tribunal recommends, the Crown ought to engage with Māori stakeholders to determine what amendments to the current Act are necessary or desirable.

The issues relating to both the TPP and the Te Ture Whenua reforms look likely to rumble on for some time yet. I know that these are just two issues (albeit, big and important issues) that engage the Treaty relationship. But they do seem to encapsulate a sense of the health of that Treaty relationship as it enters its 177th year.