Constitutional debate

00:18, Feb 07 2013

Governments and others from time to time have tried to engender a greater sense of national participation around Waitangi Day, Prime Minister John Key observed yesterday. He would welcome it happening, but doubted it could be - or should be - forced on the country. "We are not by nature a nation of flag-wavers".

Perhaps this explains why the speech was not unambiguously pitched at a national audience. Essentially, he was speaking to Maori, reminding them of his Government's achievements in keeping a promise to increase the pace of treaty settlements and emphasising the policies pursued in paving the way for a brighter post-settlement future for iwi and hapu throughout the country.

An expert panel is reviewing Te Ture Whenua Maori Act, for example, to see what can be done to unlock the potential of 27,000 or so blocks of Maori land that cover about 1.42 million hectares. Mr Key boldly raised the contentious matter of water, too. The Crown had the role and responsibility of managing it "on behalf of all New Zealanders, for the good of all New Zealanders", although his point was to highlight his relationship with the Iwi Leaders Group and the Maori Party on resource issues.

With an obvious eye on the next election, Mr Key gave credit to the Maori Party "for taking on the responsibility that is required to be part of a government".

He did not mention other coalition partners or their role in the measures being introduced to promote Maori achievement. But nor did he mention the work of the panel that is reviewing the country's constitution, although it results from the supply and confidence agreement between the National and Maori parties after the 2008 election. Whether we need a new constitution and, if so, whether the Treaty of Waitangi should play a role in it are critical questions on its agenda.

Panel member Michael Cullen says the panel's primary task is, "to stimulate public debate and awareness of constitutional issues by providing information about New Zealand's constitutional arrangements". That debate has been perturbingly muted. Mr Key's disinclination to rekindle it suggests that's the way he wants it and then - maybe - pressure for unnecessary change will go away.