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A dire warning for Christopher Luxon’s coalition

14 Jun 2024

| Author: Chris Trotter

“There’ll be hell to pay if [David Seymour’s Treaty Principles Bill] goes beyond first reading, there’ll be hell to pay.” So says the Māori King’s spokesperson, Tukoroirangi Morgan, towards the end of his 30-minute unedited interview with RNZ’s Guyon Espiner.

It is regrettable that Espiner did not ask Morgan to flesh out his prediction that if Seymour is successful, then “you will see action in this country, protest in this country, opposition in this country never seen in this country before”.

It is important to record that the words quoted above are not the words of a hot-headed Māori radical with plenty of passion but not much else. They are the words of a man who sits high in the councils of Tainui and the Kingitanga. A man who counts himself part of a corporate entity worth, by his own reckoning, in excess of $2 billion. A man whose words should not be taken lightly. Not that Prime Minister Christopher Luxon shows any signs of taking lightly the multiple threats uttered by Māori leaders in relation to the Treaty Principles Bill.

On the contrary, his commitment to support the bill only as far as its first reading is prima facie evidence of just how seriously the threat of massive Māori resistance is being taken by the coalition government’s largest partner.

But how wise is it of the prime minister to convey to the whole nation even the slightest hint that he might be bowing to a threat issued by a fraction of the nation?


Held to ransom

There are plenty of New Zealanders old enough to recall the response of past National Party prime ministers to threats issued by trade unions.

Strike threats, especially those issued by unions strategically placed to inflict serious economic and social disruption upon the entire country, were met with dire government counterthreats. Unionists were warned that New Zealanders would not be “held to ransom” by such irresponsible behaviour.

And it almost always worked. Because, when it came to making good on its threats, the National Party had form.

The emergency regulations promulgated under the Public Safety Conservation Act in 1951 by the first National government had been sufficient to break New Zealand’s most militant unions. After 1951, National governments seldom had to ask the militants twice.

The Public Safety Conservation Act 1932, passed by New Zealand’s right-wing coalition government in the wake of the serious rioting which afflicted Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin in the “Angry Autumn” of that year, has long-since been repealed.

The same is true of the legislation outlawing sedition. Indeed, a New Zealand government called upon to defend itself in 2024 has precious little in the way of statutory assistance.

Also in short supply is the loyalty of what was once referred to as “The Establishment”. When Prime Minister Sid Holland invoked the Public Safety Conservation Act in 1951, he had no reason to doubt that the actions of his government would be upheld by the judiciary, the armed forces, the police, academic experts and the news media.

His confidence was not misplaced; organised labour had few backers in any of the institutions upon which the National government was relying to enforce its decisions.

Among organised labour itself there was a general reluctance to escalate matters beyond the bounds of an industrial dispute.

Even the militant watersiders at the heart of the conflict refused to present themselves as “strikers”. They would always insist that their employers had connived to lock them out of their workplaces.

The other militants were indeed striking, but only in solidarity with their victimised comrades. Revolutionaries these men were not – just ordinary Kiwi jokers demanding a fair go. The Labour Party itself infamously declared it was “neither for, nor against, the watersiders”.


Questionable loyalty

Would Luxon be justified in placing the same confidence in The Establishment of 2024? Could the judiciary be relied upon to uphold the coalition’s right to govern?

Would the Supreme Court confirm the principle of parliamentary sovereignty if, by doing so, it believed it would be negating the mana of Te Tiriti?

How much loyalty could the prime minister and his Cabinet expect from the public service? The universities? Would New Zealand’s armed forces step up to the constitutional plate? Would the police? Most importantly, could the news media be relied upon to do as it was asked, as it did in 1951?

In his memoirs, award-winning journalist Pat Booth recalled returning to his newsroom with the bones of a gripping story from the frontlines of the waterfront dispute. Before he could write it up, however, his sub-editor drew him aside and quietly advised him to stow his notes in the bottom drawer of his desk.

The story would never make it past the censors, and he was too good a journo to risk his career by complaining. Booth chose professional discretion over vainglorious valour, and became a household name.

It would be fascinating to put the current generation of journalists to a similar test. Would they be willing to stow their notes of the fight to ‘Honour the Treaty’ in a bottom drawer?

Would they bow to the censors? Or would they decide that a “decolonised” Aotearoa was worth more than a young journalist’s career? More to the point, perhaps, would their editors? These are uncomfortable questions to ask and, for many New Zealanders, the answers that present themselves are far from satisfactory.

Not the least of their concerns is the extent to which the general population is aware of just how tenuous the loyalty of the 2024 Establishment has become to the electoral mandate claimed by the coalition government.

There was a time when the claim “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” – the Voice of the People is the Voice of God – went undisputed. Today, the voice of the people is just as likely to be dismissed as the voice of racism, colonialism and white supremacy.

A more strategically attuned prime minister might look upon the developing controversy arising from events alleged to have taken place on the Manurewa marae during the 2023 general election as an opportunity to let the public scrutinise the degree to which state institutions, advised by the Office of Māori-Crown Relations, have been willing to act as “good treaty partners”.

Certainly, Luxon would be most unwise to let the idea settle in people’s minds that information provided to Stats NZ, Health New Zealand and the Electoral Commission is anything other than 100% secure. Absent that conviction, public co-operation will falter and the conspiracy theorists will be proved right


Aussie commissioner?

To restore New Zealanders’ confidence in the integrity of their political and administrative institutions, the prime minister might escalate the scope and status of the current in-house investigations by rolling them all into a single Royal Commission of Inquiry, invested with powers no less comprehensive than those of the Waitangi Tribunal, to identify and follow any and all leads suggestive of an unhealthily lax approach to the state’s obligation to afford all its citizens the full and equal protection of the laws. Just to be on the safe side, it would probably be a good idea to appoint a retired Australian judge to chair the Royal Commission.

The Arthur Allan Thomas case demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that once the New Zealand judiciary gets an idea in its head, the chances of getting it out again are vanishingly small. Knowing this, National’s Rob Muldoon took Thomas’ fate out of the hands of New Zealand judges altogether, placing his faith in the indomitable R L Taylor, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Without the help of Muldoon, Taylor – and Pat Booth – an innocent man would have spent the rest of his life in jail.

Oh, and it might also be advisable to livestream the commission’s hearings, just in case any editors started looking wistfully at their bottom drawers.

Because, if even half of the allegations swirling around Manurewa marae, Te Pati Māori and the Waipareira Trust are true, a Royal Commission will find they lead in all directions, all at once, and uncover all manner of public service practices. Ninety-five percent of the nation will be made privy to behaviour of which they had hitherto been entirely ignorant.

In that eventuality, the commission’s report will reveal to New Zealanders exactly what their Establishment has become. How will they react? Most likely there’ll be, to coin a phrase, “hell to pay”.


Chris Trotter has more than 30 years’ experience as a political commentator. He is the author of the Bowalley Road blog.

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