Christopher Luxon ventures to Rātana as pressure builds on Government over Treaty issues

The Government's host of Treaty of Waitangi-related policies are expected to spark further debate on Wednesday as politicians venture to Rātana pa for annual celebrations.  

Among them will be Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, who said at his first post-Cabinet press conference of the year on Monday that he would be delivering a clear message to others in attendance.

"My message will be laying out where we are coming from as a Government and how we want to work and partner with Māori to deliver improved outcomes for them," he said.  

Rātana celebrations occur in late January each year to mark the birthday of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, who founded the Rātana church and religious movement in the early 20th century. The Rātana settlement is found south of Whanganui.   

The Rātana movement became intertwined with politics in the late 1920s, with a number of members winning Māori electorates. Rātana met with then-Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage in 1936, forming the basis for an alliance with the Labour Party.  

The annual gathering is typically seen as the start of the political year, with politicians of many stripes attending and speaking. As well as Luxon, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and representatives of Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are expected to attend on Wednesday. 

The event takes place this year amid contention over the Government's approach to race relations and the Treaty of Waitangi.   

That was a major focus of Luxon's press conference, during which he continued to refuse ruling out National supporting the proposed Treaty Principles Bill after it goes to Select Committee.   

"Well, look, we've got a very clear commitment in our coalition agreement between National and ACT and our coalition Government commitment is that we will support a Treaty Principles Bill to First Reading, but there is no commitment to take it beyond that."  

That still provides wriggle room to vote for it after the Select Committee process if National decides it is satisfied with its form afterwards. But senior New Zealand First MP Shane Jones on Monday told Newshub his party won't be voting for it.

Introducing the Bill and supporting it at First Reading is part of the National-ACT coalition deal. It's a policy that has caused significant controversy, especially after a Ministry of Justice draft document was leaked last week showing proposed principles.   

They include that the Government has the right to govern for all New Zealanders and that the Government would honour "all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and all their property".  

The concept of the principles of the Treaty comes from the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, which established the Waitangi Tribunal to make recommendations on claims relating to the "application of the principles of the Treaty". Those principles have been developed by the courts and by the Crown since.  

Luxon on Monday repeatedly noted the Bill came about as coalition negotiations and stated that National has previously opposed ACT's suggestion to put the new Treaty principles to referendum.  

ACT, which pushed for the Bill, argues it is time to debate and define the principles so as not to leave it up to judges and bureaucrats to make their own interpretations.  

But Opposition parties like Te Pāti Māori have called it an "alarming" development and claimed it is part of a rewriting of the Treaty by the Government.   

That was rejected by Luxon. He's labelled some rhetoric, such as the suggestion that the Government's actions reflect those of "typical white supremacists".  

"I think it is entirely inappropriate. I think it's very offensive and I think it's very divisive and very unhelpful," Luxon said.  

About 10,000 people attended a hui at the Tūrangawaewae Marae called for by the Māori King on Saturday, prompted by the new Government's policies, which include plans to disestablish the Māori Health Authority, repeal some smokefree legislation, and prioritise English in Government department names. 

The coalition deal between National and NZ First includes reviewing legislation that includes "the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi" and replacing any references with "specific words relating to the relevance and application of the Treaty or repeal the references".   

Luxon didn't attend the hui, but there were Government representatives there. The Prime Minister also met with the Māori King last week and said he would like another catch-up at Rātana to "debrief" about the hui.  

He said he thought the weekend's events looked "very positive and very constructive" with a "good spirit".  

It showed that "people care and they care about where Māori are going and what their aspirations and ambitions are and that's what we really want to be able to talk with Māori about and what we have been talking about".   

"In my meetings with, one on one, with, you know, iwi leaders or whether it's been in small groups of different iwi and different Māori organisations, we have talked consistently now, for over a year-and-a-half about the ways in which we can work together to deliver better outcomes for Māori."   

A delegation from the Te Kīngitanga and Tainui Waka arrived at Rātana on Tuesday carrying the mauri (life force) of Saturday's hui.  

"The overwhelming message from the more than 10,000 people at Hui-aa-Motu was Kotahitanga and upholding the mana of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and we bring that message here to Rātana," said the Kīngitanga chief of staff Ngira Simmonds.  

"As Kingi Tuheitia reminded us, our work has just begun and we must continue to advocate for te Iwi Māori and upholding of the Treaty. Te Kiingi also encouraged people to be proud of their culture and to celebrate being Māori all day, every day."  

The Kīngitanga said it has close historical links with Rātana "underpinned by their support of Te Tiriti and mana Motuhake".   

Rātana also comes ahead of Waitangi events in just under two weeks' time, where it is expected again that the Government's policies will be front of mind for many.