David Seymour accuses Waitangi Tribunal of meddling after it makes confidential Treaty Principles docs public

David Seymour has accused the Waitangi Tribunal of political meddling after it made confidential documents about the proposed Treaty Principles legislation public. 

The briefings reveal officials told the Government the policy could threaten social cohesion and ACT's proposed principles were a novel interpretation with the backing of no expert opinion. 

The Government's plan to define the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi has become a political lightning rod. 

A Waitangi tribunal inquiry this month into the proposal was shown confidential policy briefings from officials to ministers - briefings the tribunal has now made public. 

Seymour, the Associate Justice Minister who's in charge of the work, said it should be up to the Government to decide when that happens. 

"I think it is more respectful to the people in a democracy that a Government they elected is actually able to get on with the job, rather than someone unelected sticking their oar in," he told Newshub.  

The Chief Judge's memorandums show that essentially she didn't buy the Crown's argument, which was that because the policy is still being developed there's a strong public interest in withholding these documents. 

The judge said restricting the documents would limit the Tribunal's ability to refer to them, which would be contrary to the principle of justice needing to be seen to be done. 

The policy is still being developed, but the briefings were based on principles proposed by ACT. Importantly, the principles mention the rights of all New Zealanders - not just Māori. 

The proposed principles were: 

  • Article 1: The New Zealand Government has the right to govern all New Zealanders  
  • Article 2: The New Zealand Government will honour all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and all their property  
  • Article 3: All New Zealanders are equal under the law with the same rights and duties 

"What sort of successful society do you have when one group has political rights that the rest don't have. That's not equality and that's not democracy," Seymour said.  

That interpretation raised eyebrows. In a December briefing to Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith officials said ACT's description of the principles "differs significantly from current understandings within the Crown, Courts, and Waitangi Tribunal". 

"This appears to be a novel interpretation of Article 2 as we are not aware of any support for it in legislation, judicial interpretation or expert opinion." 

"I would go further than that, some of these are closer to a fabrication," said law lecturer Luke Fitzmaurice-Brown.  

Seymour said: "There are people who have different views, but I think that is healthy. My view is that the Treaty gives the same rights to all New Zealanders." 

Seymour wants the policy to spark a national conversation about the Treaty, but the briefings said, "we think it is unlikely to facilitate the type of national conversation that will help address uncertainty and apprehensions". 

"We are concerned that there is a substantial risk the Bill could generate further division, which poses a threat to social cohesion and could undermine legitimacy and trust in institutions."   

Fitzmaurice-Brown said: "It's not the idea of a conversation itself that is a worry, it's the fact the particular conversation being proposed just is detached from reality." 

But Seymour said: "To politely and respectfully debate our future, that actually leads to greater understanding." 

The documents show Seymour later told officials that ACT's principles were just a starting point - he won't give away their current shape. 

"Despite the Waitangi Tribunal effectively leaking this, I do have to be respectful of my Cabinet colleagues," said Seymour.