Thank you very much for hosting me at Milford Rotary again. Every time I speak at Rotary I thank you for what you’ve done to polio around the world. My mother was born in April 1956, five months before the...

Thank you very much for hosting me at Milford Rotary again. Every time I speak at Rotary I thank you for what you’ve done to polio around the world. My mother was born in April 1956, five months before the Salk vaccine arrived in our country. Partly as a result of that, she was one of the last people born in the Western world to contract polio. I know she’d be grateful that Rotary International has pursued the virus to the end of the earth to wipe it off the map.


It’s difficult to begin a speech without acknowledging the extraordinary events unfolding in Europe as we speak. Our thoughts are with those brave and inspiring Ukrainians who are fighting not just for their lives, but the principles of freedom and democracy. I don’t know about you, but there’s a surreal feeling about the war that fades with each day. Can this really be happening? Well, it is.

Not so long ago we could feel that liberal democracy had won the day. The cold war was over. Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history, meaning no more traditional disputes or wars. Helen Clark said we lived in a benign strategic environment. We signed the world’s first free trade agreement with China, confident that they too would see the wisdom of liberal democracy while we sold them a lot of milk powder.

The truth is that the events of the past month in Europe have been coming for a while. The people who measure these things tell us that democracy has been in decline after its post-Cold War renaissance. Freedom House reports that more countries have moved away from democracy than towards it for the past 16 years in a row. China and Russia are just the obvious ones. There’s also the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, even the United States where a significant minority believe the last election was rigged.

The harrowing events in Europe should at least give us one thing: clarity. We stand for liberal democracy, the simple idea of a nation state where each person is alike in dignity and is born with the same set of inalienable political rights. In fact, being the first country in the world where every adult has the same right to vote is one of our country’s greatest achievements. It reminds us that our little society at the edge of the world can be a beacon for humanity.

The Treaty

If we want to find examples of New Zealand exceptionalism, we can actually look back further than Kate Sheppard’s achievement to our founding.

The Treaty is part of 400 years of progress in the Western world. We have marched towards the light of liberty and emancipation, giving people the right to be alike in dignity.

We’re alone in celebrating a country founded by a voluntary agreement – a voluntary agreement that says everyone has the same rights and that everyone’s property, or taonga, is safe and secure. The Treaty was an extraordinary document for its time.

In 1840, William Wilberforce had only just ended the slave trade in the UK. The American Civil War was still in the future, and American high school desegregation was over a century away. The Treaty was again New Zealand leading the enlightened world.

It guarantees each person – no matter their origins or ethnicity – equality before the law.

It guarantees property will be protected by the government.

Early in our history, the Crown failed to uphold people's basic rights, allowing numerous thefts and frauds against property rights. That’s why ACT has supported the Treaty settlement process for several decades now. Examining and atoning for past wrongdoing is the right thing to do.

Modern Inequality

We still see the aftermath of those breaches today. When it comes to home ownership, imprisonment, educational attainment, welfare dependency, basically every social statistic shows Māori worse off, often dramatically so. For example, Māori are three times over represented in prison.

I’m proud that, when ACT had little political capital to invest, we put it all into charter schools. As Sir Toby Curtis said in defence of the policy, ‘the only problem with the education system is that it’s failed Māori for 170 years.’ I saw kids who’d fled state schools with openly racist teachers, protected by the unions, to find new purpose at schools like Te Kāpehu Whetu in Whangarei.

We need to do more to make houses more affordable by making them easier to build. We need to reintroduce mutual obligation into welfare to make it a stopgap instead of a lifestyle. We need to put rehabilitation front and centre of our prison system. We need to set high educational standards and empower educators to deliver them. ACT has innovative policies to do all of that.

But here’s the thing. Not all Māori are struggling and not all those struggling are Māori. The best way to address unequal outcomes is to improve ALL our health and education policies – not to single out one group for special treatment because of their ethnicity.


We can say something similar about culture in New Zealand. As I said in my 2017 book Own Your Future:

I’m part of a generation that does not resent Maori or Maori culture... Whether or not we’re Maori ourselves, my generation knows that the ‘e’ in Maori is pronounced ‘air’ rather than ‘eh’ or ‘ee.’ We can make a pretty good fist of the Maori version of the National anthem and when we go overseas we’re proud that we have a unique thread to our national culture that nobody else has.

We should celebrate our Māori culture in New Zealand, it adds strength and richness to the Kiwi identity. But here’s another thing. We should not have to choose between our Māori and other cultures.

This is not 1950, New Zealand today is more than Māori and Pakeha. We should not have to choose between our Māori and other cultures. We should celebrate them all. Our Kiwi identity should be one of a modern, multi-ethnic, outward-looking liberal democracy with an equal place for everybody.

Co-governance initiatives

The problem is that our liberal democracy founded by the Treaty and boosted by universal suffrage is being undermined at exactly the time liberal democracy is under attack around the world.

We are not suffering from Russian missiles or messy elections, but a gradual erosion of the democratic principle by an odd interpretation of the very Treaty that set us on the right course.

Over the past forty years there has been a quiet shift from the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal in the way that the Treaty is interpreted. The problem is that this shift is transforming our constitutional underpinnings but has never been subject to public debate.

In fact, many people feel unable to raise their voice on the constitutional future of their country for fear of being branded as racist.

Nevertheless, we are seeing our constitutional settings being transformed from the nation state that a literal reading of the Treaty demands, where all citizens have the ‘same rights and duties,’ to an ethno-state. In this ‘tiriti-centric Aotearoa,’ there are two types or people. Tangata whenua, here by right, and tangata tiriti, here by the grace of whatever the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal think the Treaty means.

Nobody in government has ever come out and asked the simple question: do you think the best way to preserve Māori culture and create equal opportunity is to abandon liberal democracy? Instead, we see a quiet assumption that every aspect of governance in New Zealand should change to a state where there are two baskets of political rights. On more and more boards and councils, some people are appointed based on who their great grandparents were while the rest have to stick with the old system of having elections and winning votes.

The range of co-governance initiatives underway right now sweeps across every part of society.

UNDRIP/He Puapua

This Labour Government - spurred on by a powerful Māori Caucus and a spurious interpretation of the Treaty - has put co-governance on steroids and started us down the path towards a Partnership State.

But it was actually John Key’s National Party that opened the floodgates. Over ACT’s strong objections, he naïvely allowed the Māori Party to go to the UN and sign New Zealand up to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Declaration is a combination of redundant or impractical. Redundant in some cases because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bill of Rights Act already delivers them. Impractical because it contradicts liberal democracy and attempts to give some people different rights because of their birth.

Helen Clark got it right when her Government refused to sign up. She said the Declaration was “fundamentally incompatible with New Zealand’s constitutional and legal arrangements.” Her Minister for Māori Affairs said, “The declaration also implies that indigenous people should have a right of veto over parliamentary law-making.”

The Declaration is now creating great division as the Government has brought together a group of academics and activists to write He Puapua: a report demanding the transformation of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements with ‘Declaration compliance’ by 2040.

After ACT brought He Puapua to Parliament in April 2021 and demanded answers from the Government, it retreated into the shadows. We know Labour is still working on He Puapua and we will continue to shed light on it.

Healthcare reforms

The creation of a Māori Health Authority with a veto over national health plans highlights the difference between co-governance and devolution.

It is possible to do things better and differently. NIB insurance and Ngati Whatua Orakei are working together to provide innovative healthcare solutions for hapu members. They have discovered that their members want healthcare delivered differently. The emphasis is on whanau decision making. For many patients, it’s the first time they’ve been asked to give feedback on their doctor’s performance. It may be the first time many doctors have had such feedback.

It’s a win-win solution but actually it’s no different from any other business working hard to respond to its customers’ needs. That’s different from creating two healthcare systems where one has a veto over the other.

The Pae Ora Legislation Bill says it will reform healthcare to give effect to the principles of the Treaty. It would create a Māori Health Authority separate from Health New Zealand that replaces DHBs. If the two entities disagree on a national health plan, the Minister of Health has to arbitrate. In other words, there will be two power structures in health, one for tangata whenua, and another for tangata tiriti.

Instead of actual innovation to get better results, the Government would like to change the management structure to fit ideology. It is completely wrong.

Three Waters

Co-governance has even extended to water infrastructure. As our Local Government spokesperson Simon Court asked in Parliament last week, how will co-governance stop sewage overflows into rivers and onto beaches or deliver better water infrastructure in our towns and cities? Nanaia Mahuta couldn’t answer him.

Even former Labour Party leader Phil Goff has said: ‘Democratic accountability, through elected representatives, to people who funded the water infrastructure in Auckland valued at many billions of dollars and who continue to pay for its operation is critical. It is not appropriate to cede control over this infrastructure to other councils and mana whenua and to remove existing accountability to Aucklanders through elected representatives.’

Mahuta must realise that when even Phil Goff has said the Government shouldn’t be giving control of council assets to iwi, she’s lost the room.

What’s interesting is the way that the Treaty is being interpreted. There was no Māori interest in three waters infrastructure prior to 1840. The first three waters infrastructure I’m aware of is the Auckland Drainage Board in 1845. If there is a pre-1840 interest in any particular body of water itself, then there was 23 years from 1985-2008 where claims could have been laid. This hasn’t happened.

That makes the Three Waters legislation another example of where the Government’s agenda is going. The co-governance is not occurring the way that Auckland’s volcanic cones are being co-governed - to recognise an enduring interest in the Maunga - it’s been introduced on the assumption that if you’re born Māori then you have a different level of political interest in the affairs of this country than anyone else. It is totally at odds with the principle of one person, one vote liberal democracy.

Co-governance is pervasive

Those are some of the better known examples. There are many more. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is currently changing the terms of research funding to align with the principles of the Treaty. The whole point of science is that all assumptions can be challenged, but the new ‘Green Paper’ says Māori knowledge is different.

The new history curriculum says Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of New Zealand, and everything today is the result of colonisation. Environment Canterbury is having two appointed Ngai Tahu councillors put beside the rest of its democratically elected ones. The Hauraki Gulf Forum that manages the Hauraki Gulf just voted to ask Parliament to turn it into a co-governed entity.

The question a lot of people ask is, where is this coming from?

Shift in Treaty principles

We now hear from legal academics and judges that the Treaty is somehow a partnership between two collectives. Let's consider what that means. On the one hand, the Treaty can mean we're all people with the same rights and duties as each other; and on the other hand, it can mean we're two collectives. Both interpretations cannot be right.

The Treaty promised every New Zealander has the same rights and duties. That is what we should be upholding. Yet it's strange that having made so much progress making every New Zealander alike in dignity and giving them the same rights and duties, we are now seeking to create division by saying that there will actually be different legal categories of person, that people will have different rights and different duties based on who their great grandparents were.

That is the finding from successive court hearings and Waitangi Tribunal hearings reaching back to the early 1980s. Far be it from me to question their legal reasoning, but I can talk about the political consequences of where they’re taking us.

There's something pernicious about the idea that the Treaty is a partnership between two collectives. Because what that means is that it doesn't matter what you do in your life or how you act that counts; what matters more than anything else is which group you are a member of. It is the most odious belief in human history that we should treat people differently based on what group they're a member of, rather than take them on their merits for how they act as an individual. It takes Martin Luther King’s words and reverses them, making the colour of your skin more important than the content of your character, and that is completely wrong.

A referendum on co-governance

So far we’ve summed up the problem. In a world where democracy is under threat, our country is dismantling democracy in an undemocratic way. In a country with real inequality problems, we have a Government that is focused on the org chart rather than the outcome. In a country that has led the world advancing democracy, we are now developing our own quaint brand of South Pacific illiberalism.

Worst of all it’s never been openly discussed or debated, and people feel shouted down for questioning it. Where is the place in this country for people who are very comfortable with the place of Māori culture in our country - many like me are Māori - but also think liberal democracy is a magnificent way to live?

In my State of the Nation speech last month I said that the Kiwi identity would be at the core of ACT’s work alongside a healthier economy and healthy and thriving communities.

I’ve been thinking about how we solve the problem of undemocratic change away from democracy. If the courts and Waitangi Tribunal can interpret the Treaty, then we the people have the right to our say on it, too.

In fact, in a democracy, power rests equally with each person. The best way to have our say on the constitutional development is a referendum on co-governance.

ACT proposes that the next Government pass legislation defining the principles of the Treaty and particularly their effect on democratic institutions, then ask the people to vote on it becoming law.

You may recall we did this with the End of Life Choice Act, where Parliament passed the law and the people ratified it at referendum.

The Treaty Principles Act

The Treaty Principles Act would be short but decisive. It would say:

The Principles of the Treaty are defined as:

  1. All citizens of New Zealand have the same political rights and duties
  2. All political authority comes from the people by democratic means including universal suffrage, regular and free elections with a secret ballot
  3. New Zealand is a multiethnic liberal democracy where discrimination based on ethnicity is illegal

For the avoidance of doubt, these principles prevail over any contradictory enactment by Parliament, or finding on the matter of Treaty principles by the courts.

If a majority of electors voting in a referendum support this Act coming into force, this Act comes into force on date on which the official result of that referendum is declared.

The Referendum Debate

The effect of the referendum would be to flip the debate on our constitutional future.

Now, the courts and Waitangi Tribunal have quietly made co-governance our unquestioned and unquestionable destiny.

In a public debate they would be flushed out. They would have to explain why they believe some people are born with different political rights and duties. They would have to explain why some political authority should come from sources other than free and fair elections with universal suffrage.

That is a debate worth having. I predict there would be 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 have abandoned democracy consciously and democratically.

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.

By ending the obsession with constitutional reform, we could get stuck into the real problems in education, housing, welfare and crime that Māori get the worst end of. We would use innovative and practical solutions that actually change real peoples’ lives for the better. Charter schools were just the start of that.

But something else far more important would happen. People who feel alienated would find a place in the Kiwi identity. Māori culture could be taken for what it is: a rich and essential part of New Zealand’s tapestry that is no threat, but there to be embraced, along with every other culture that makes up our country.

This election, ACT will be campaigning for a referendum on co-governance

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