Graham Adams: Will He Puapua propel Winston Peters back into politics?

Graham Adams: Will He Puapua propel Winston Peters back into politics?

The NZ First leader once described the UN Declaration as the “road to Zimbabwe”. Graham Adams asks how long he will sit on the sidelines as the debate over Maori sovereignty rages.

The controversial report He Puapua has been seized upon by National and Act as evidence of a covert agenda for advancing Maori sovereignty that the government hid until after the 2020 election because of the obvious electoral risk. Now media speculation has added another plot twist involving Winston Peters.

It has been claimed that it may not have been voters whom Ardern most wanted to keep in the dark about the plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but rather her Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters. Even if the general public might have overlooked He Puapua had it been released — not least because the mainstream media would quite possibly have ignored it — Peters almost certainly would not have.

As a long-time opponent of Maori separatism, it is argued, Peters could have made political hay with it in the election campaign if the Declaration Working Group’s report had been presented to Cabinet after it was delivered to Nanaia Mahuta in November 2019. In fact, he might have made enough hay to get over the 5 per cent threshold to re-enter Parliament — and consequently once again have been in a position to decide which parties might form the next government.

Conspiracy theories by definition revolve around a suspicion that some damaging information has been covered up to hide serious misdeeds or to fool the public about a particular plan of action. The evidence required to establish such theories — at least in the minds of those inclined to believe them — doesn’t have to be conclusive; it merely has to corroborate the thesis.

As trial lawyers are fond of saying, the individual strands of a case may not be enough to support a guilty verdict alone but woven together they function as a sturdy and dependable rope. The possibility that Ardern wanted to thwart Peters’ electoral chances has provided yet another plausible strand to the conspiracy storyline.

Now, with Peters sidelined after last year’s election, it is Judith Collins who is enjoying the windfall from the gathering political storm sparked by Act leader David Seymour questioning the Prime Minister about He Puapua in Parliament a month ago.

On Sunday, at the lower North Island Regional Conference, the National leader listed some of the measures the government has initiated that are closely aligned to the recommendations in He Puapua.

They include: freshwater reforms, which embedded Te Mana o te Wai as a “fundamental concept”; the proposed new compulsory history curriculum centred on the consequences of colonisation and the effects of power; the law allowing councils to urgently create Māori wards for the 2022 local government elections; the commitment for the government to work with iwi on a direct role for Māori in resource management and freshwater reform; and a Māori Health Authority able to exercise a veto over the $20 billion health budget.

With a coherent narrative being established around He Puapua functioning as an undeclared Labour Party manifesto, the Prime Minister is in the unenviable position of being obliged to deny that it has influenced government policy when the circumstantial evidence appears to be against her. No matter how many members of Cabinet claim not to have read the document (including the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Andrew Little), its recommendations have shown a surprising correlation with government actions.

Ardern is under increasing pressure over the topic, which is evident to anyone who watches sessions in the House on Parliament TV. She is rattled — and with good reason. It is clear that Judith Collins and David Seymour are going to be able to use He Puapua as a hefty stick to beat her with for some time.

Even the Prime Minister’s remarkable ability to not directly answer a question is working against her. Faced with the opposition’s relentless attacks, she looks increasingly evasive.

In the House last Wednesday, Collins again locked onto Ardern over the question of whether the proposed Maori Health Authority will have a power of veto.

The Prime Minister clearly couldn’t bring herself to agree that an effective veto was inherent in the new authority’s role. She knows that for her to admit an organisation representing the interests of 15 per cent of the population will be given the right to nix the plans governing the remaining 85 per cent will be extremely damaging.

In this aspect of the debate, Collins holds the upper hand. In the House, she has adopted the air of a cat toying with a mouse as she repeatedly prods Ardern to say the dreaded word “veto”.

Last Wednesday, after posing a string of questions on the topic, Collins asked with a grin and a patronising chuckle: “So if she’s so concerned about using the term ‘veto’, then why is it in the health Cabinet paper that her Minister took to Cabinet, and why did he say yesterday there are two vetoes?”

Ardern once again avoided answering Collins’ query but, instead, cleverly parried with one of her own: “My question is why can the member not say the word ‘partnership’?”

The Labour caucus applauded their champion’s quick-witted reply but there was little respite for them. Collins moved immediately onto questioning the commitments Ardern had made “to iwi and the Labour Māori caucus on fresh water and resource management changes”.

Later in the session, Seymour probed the flaws in the government’s policy to give “preference to Māori businesses through procurement”.

Just how much Collins is getting under Ardern’s skin became evident in Parliament this week when she accused her opponent of “politicising” the concept of a Treaty partnership and engaging in a “race to the bottom”.

How long Peters will want to sit on the sidelines as Collins and Seymour press their case against Māori preferment is anyone’s guess but the intense pressure Ardern is under right now will certainly be ramped up if he bursts back into the national spotlight.

Less than a month ago, while in Wellington to pursue the case of his leaked superannuation overpayments in court, he brushed away journalists’ questions about a possible return to politics with a laugh.

Yet He Puapua provides Peters with the perfect launch pad to re-enter the fray. He can paint himself as being drawn out of retirement to counter the grave assault on democracy that He Puapua represents.

Opposition to Maori nationalism has long been Peters’ bread and butter. As a Maori politician, he is perfectly placed to lead the charge against any plan that can be construed as advocating racial separatism.

Collins has to be very careful in her language and positioning to avoid being cast as the reincarnation of Don Brash 17 years after his inflammatory Orewa speech in 2004. Consequently, the thrust of her attack is centred on an unimpeachable request for Ardern to open up an “adult conversation” about He Puapua’s recommendations given its implications for New Zealand’s democratic conventions.

But while Collins needs to appeal to a broad church to win power, Peters only has to attract enough voters to vault NZ First over the 5 per cent threshold, which could hand him the balance of power. Thus he has far wider licence to thunder against Ardern’s principal argument that the Treaty implies a constitutional partnership between the Crown and Maori. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he has.

In 2011, he pulled no punches in taking direct aim at John Key’s government, which had allowed the Maori Party a year earlier to secretly sign the UN Declaration in New York “in the dead of night”.

Peters said then that the Treaty was not a binding legal document, and one which “cannot and must not be used in a constitution or indeed in any legislation apart from the specific cases that try to redress the worst excesses of colonisation…

“This [UN] declaration says that in a dispute over New Zealand laws, some New Zealanders’ rights override the rights of others. And in time, this is going to be written into our laws… This is the final step on the road to separatism. This is the road to Zimbabwe.”

Those remarks were made a decade ago. Attitudes among voters towards Maori self-governance may have become more accommodating in that time but perhaps not nearly as much as Ardern is banking on.

After New Zealand signed the Declaration in 2010, it was belatedly sold to the public as merely “symbolic and aspirational”. Now Ardern is pushing it as an obligation she is morally obliged to fulfil.

Peters can equally position himself as morally obliged to re-enter the political fray to oppose it.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.