The first rule of fact checking is that everything you read, hear and see is wrong. The second rule of fact checking is everything you read, hear and see is wrong. The third rule of fact checking is, well, you know what it is. In American politics fact checking is a lucrative business. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com and The Fact Checker at the Washington Post are built around verifying the claims and counter-claims of politicians, writers and commentators. PolitiFact uses the Truth-O-Meter while the Washington Post dishes our Pinocchios. Fact checking is less important in New Zealand politics, but the rise of Treaty obstructionists, falsifiers and denialists provide plenty of material for local fact checkers. Example: Treaty Rights a trap in constitution plan by David Round.
Round bases his piece on a tenuous premise: he assumes the Constitutional Review Panel will recommend that the Treaty and Treaty principles be incorporated into supreme law and the government will implement that recommendation. That assumption runs against political logic.* There are no ideological, pragmatic or popular imperatives that demand the government incorporate the Treaty and Treaty principles in to a new constitution. Doing so would amount to legislating against the National Party’s base. Only 57% of New Zealanders agree that the “Treaty is for all New Zealanders” and 59% agree that the Treaty is our founding document – but subtract for Maori responses and that figure is likely to fall below 50%. Those numbers do not demand movement from the government. After all, the Prime Minister is a pragmatist, not a Maori supremacist in a Merril Lynch suit.
For the sake of it, let’s assume that the Prime Minister and National aren’t pragmatists. Even then, neither conservative nor neoliberal ideology would allow a Treaty based constitution. Conservatives value custom, convention and continuity. A Treaty based constitution represents foundational change – the antonym of custom, convention and continuity. The same offence is made against Neoliberalism. Neoliberal dogma prescribes the supremacy of free markets and the individual. A Treaty based constitution transfers significant power to the collective – and a mainly proletarian collective at that – and that could impede the market. I must have a dry imagination, but I can’t see committed conservatives (like English and Burrows) and faithful neoliberals (like Key and Joyce) adopting kaupapa Maori politics.
Pragmatism and ideology aside, Round makes a number of more fundamental mistakes. He claims that the word taonga meant “physical property” in 1840 as opposed to “anything Maori might take a fancy” (sloppy dog-whistle). Well, Te Puni Kokiri holds that taonga “was a more abstract and wide ranging term than the ‘properties’ in the English text”. The article also mentions that taonga has been translated as meaning “treasures” or “all things highly prized”.** Both translations can be read in the abstract. Matthew Palmer writes that taonga “may be more than objects of tangible value”.*** Again, there is an abstract value to the word. In any case, I was taught that taonga has and always has had an abstract meaning. It isn’t confined to western notions of physical property.
Round also claims that “Parliament has been our undisputed supreme lawmaker for centuries”. Well, again, that’s wrong. The United Kingdom Parliament granted self-government to New Zealand in 1852 and created the “General Assembly of New Zealand”. However, the UK Act establishing our General Assembly placed substantive restrictions on that body’s law making power. Academic Bruce Harris wrote that the Act “ensured that the local legislature would remain subservient to that at Westminster”.**** Our Parliament didn’t acquire full law-making power until 1947 with the passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1947.***** So, actually, our Parliament has only “been our undisputed supreme law maker” for going on 66 years. Well less than the “centuries” that Round seems to think. No law lecturer should make such a rudimentary mistake.
Round also says that:
The Treaty's words are now twisted to mean their exact opposite. The Treaty said Maori and settler were to be equals under the Queen's government. In Captain Hobson's words, "Now we are one people". But by the modern "principles", "Maori" are not the Queen's subjects but her "partners" in governing New Zealand.
Round doesn’t provide any example of what words are “twisted to mean their exact opposite”. That’s because he can’t. The meaning of the Treaty is well established. Round also misrepresents what is meant by partnership. The Treaty is probably best viewed as a “developing social contract” rather than a tight legal contract (like a commercial contract). Partnership, in the sense of a social contract, doesn’t mean Maori should or do have a 50/50 say in how New Zealand is run, rather the Crown and Maori (broadly speaking) must act reasonably and in good faith. Round is deliberately scaremongering.
Round goes on and on, providing fallacious examples of how the Treaty principles will doom the country. It’s John Ansell-esque. He couldn’t resist the racist slur that “a lot of child support – must surely be a Treaty right”. He expounds on the effects of Treaty principles like he’s some sort of Oracle. It’s bat-shit crazy. I can handle strong opposition to the Treaty, but it has to be well reasoned - not half-baked Anglophilia.
Ultimately, the most worrying piece of the article isn’t anything Round wrote – it’s this:
David Round teaches law at the University of Canterbury.
Post-Script: I had a laugh where Round accuses Chief Justice Elias of treason and labels her a "usurper". He didn't provide an example of her treason, just threw down a platitude.
*For a lesson in political logic, American politics provides an instructive example. The Democratic Party enjoyed a near monopoly on the Southern States from the 1870s to the 1960s. In part due to the party’s defence of slavery, partly due to their defence of Jim Crow laws and partly due to economic policies that were perceived to favour Southern interests and industry. However, after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he is supposed to have turned to his press secretary and said that the Democrats “have lost the South for a generation.” Johnson went against political logic (but not the moral imperative) and electoral realignment followed. Southern conservatives who opposed civil rights and integration fled to the Republicans Party. As a result, the Republicans implemented their “Southern strategy” and have dominated presidential politics from Nixon to Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush II. Without such a powerful moral imperative, why would the Nats risk electoral realignment.
** See He Tirohanga o Kawa kite Tiriti o Waitangi (Wellington, 2001).
***See M S R Palmer The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand’s Law and Constitution (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2008).
****Refer to B V Harris “The Law-Making Powers of the New Zealand General Assembly: Time to Think About Change” (1984) 5 Otago Law Review 565-571 (Harris is a former Dean of Law at Otago and Auckland and a Harvard graduate).
*****That same year the UK Parliament passed the New Zealand Constitution (Amendment) Act allowing our Parliament to regulate its own composition. The final step in the acquisition of full law-making powers.