Editorial: Symbolic gesture

Last updated 05:00 21/04/2010

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OPINION: The Maori Party chalked up another victory this week with the announcement that the Government will support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Although this decision is largely symbolic, support for the declaration had been a long-standing goal of the party and a source of friction between it and the previous Labour-led administration.

From a political perspective, support for the declaration makes sense for both the Maori Party and National. The Maori Party can add this to a growing list of policy concessions by National, including retaining the Maori seats and flying the Maori flag on Waitangi Day. In addition, the hated foreshore and seabed law will be repealed and the Maori Party's flagship Whanau Ora policy will be introduced.

For National, these concessions have the effect of tying the Maori Party closer to it and creating the prospect that a support relationship between the two could endure past this term. In particular, it creates a point of difference with Labour, which justified its position as one of just four nations to oppose the declaration in 2007 by saying that it was at odds with New Zealand's constitutional and legal framework.

It argued the document implied that indigenous people had rights that other people did not, including the power to veto Parliament. But underlying Labour's opposition might also have been the concern that support for the declaration would have been another weapon for Maori to use when attacking it over the foreshore and seabed issue.

Given Labour's fear of being branded a politically correct party which supported Maori separatism, this was actually one of those political issues which National found easier to deal with.

Even so, Prime Minister John Key was aware of the potential for a backlash, including from members of his own party. Delicate negotiations with the Maori Party had been going on for about a year, and fear of a backlash could have contributed to the secrecy with which Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples flew to New York to announce the decision at the UN, much to the anger of another National support partner, ACT New Zealand.

It certainly explains the care with which Key emphasised that the declaration would have no practical effect. He stressed that it was aspirational, not binding, and that support for it carried the proviso that it could not override New Zealand's legal and constitutional systems, including the Treaty settlement process.

There is a risk that the declaration could be the basis of future attacks on this nation's human rights record. But New Zealand governments have shown themselves capable of shrugging off previous criticism from bodies such as the UN Commission on Human Rights.

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It might be argued, as Labour has done, that there was little point in endorsing the declaration if it would have no practical effect. It is, however, a symbol of New Zealand's support for indigenous peoples across the globe.

And it was always incongruous that the vast majority of nations, many of which have appalling human rights records compared with New Zealand, voted for the bill, and that this nation did not.

- The Press

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