Controversy on indigenous rights across the Tasman

From our Leader in the Digital Edition dated July 15, 2023

Venkat Raman
Auckland, July 15, 2023

The controversy over the rights of indigenous people is not unique to New Zealand. There have been similar issues in many other parts of the world, including Canada for decades.

Across the Tasman, there is trouble brewing. Later this year, Australians will be asked to have their say in a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia through an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice guaranteed in the Australian Constitution.

Aboriginal Voice

Called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, it will make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Australian Parliament will have the power to make laws concerning matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.

There have been several voices of dissent on the move but the one that caught our attention was a Letter to the Editor in The Economist on July 13, 2023. Reader John Watson from Sydney said that  Australians have good reason to be suspicious of the proposed constitutional amendment.

“The governing Labour Party has provided little information and debate about how this would work, asking voters to go with the vibe instead. The government spends generously on improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. And the National Indigenous Australians Agency already ensures that Aboriginals are heard, recognised and empowered. There is also the Coalition of Peaks, representing 80 community-controlled Aboriginal organisations, in addition to land councils and Aboriginal corporations. Not to mention the 11 indigenous Australians in Parliament itself, about 5% of the total lawmakers. There is a federal minister for Aboriginal affairs and one in each of the six states,” the Reader said.

People like Watson believe that the Australian government has made the fundamental error of ascribing any indigenous disadvantage to race, rather than isolation and poverty.

“Australians do not want to be divided along racial lines,” Watson said.

Sounds familiar? We thought so.

Co-Governance in New Zealand

Co-Governance is an emerging and developing model of decision-making in New Zealand. It refers to a shared governance arrangement with representatives of Iwi on one side and representatives of central and or local government on the other, each side having equal voting rights at the decision-making table.

Democracy for Action, an organisation which claims to be fighting for democracy, said that the Co-Governance model began over a decade ago as a method to govern specific natural resources. Many of these arrangements came about as part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlements, such as the co-governance of Te Urewera Park, the Waikato and Whanganui rivers, and 14 volcanic cones across Auckland.

“However, under the Labour government, the spread of Co-Governance has become endemic. Not only is the co-governance model increasingly being implemented by the government to manage natural resources, but it has now extended to public services such as the new water utility companies, and the new national health system, which now has a dual governance structure – one for Māori citizens and the other for all other New Zealanders,” it said.

A misunderstood concept

A MinterEllisonRuddWatts analysis said that Co-Governance has many layers and of real potency and that it is often as misunderstood as it is used to drive agendas across the political spectrum.

“On the surface, co-governance refers to a shared governance arrangement, with Treaty of Waitangi – Te Tiriti o Waitangi partners having equal seats around the table. Often mistakenly believed to be about the ownership of assets, it in fact refers to partnership in their governance. It is not a new topic, with iwi and Crown entities managing many rivers, lakes and forests together under co-governance arrangements for a number of years,” the analysis said.

The Labour Government’s decision on Co-Governance has sparked strong reactions from New Zealand, with former Attorney General and Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Chris Finlayson saying that Co-Governance cannot apply to all areas of government.

“Obvious examples of where Co-Governance would be hard to apply are national security and foreign affairs. It is also important to distinguish between Co-Governance and initiatives developed by this Government to deal with an issue, such as the Māori Health Authority, which I do not regard as Co-Governance. The Māori Health Authority is an example of a government initiative to address health needs in the community. Whether it is a good idea is for the politicians to debate,” he said.

As Democracy for Action said, New Zealand is at a crossroads.

“Our choice for the future is either as a democratic state based on equal rights for all, or an ethno-nationalist state with separate, race-based governance. The probable future, if New Zealand continues down the current path, will be an end of united sovereignty, to be replaced by co-governance complete with two Parliaments organised under two totally different systems and cultures – one democratic and the other based on tribal Tikanga.”

We will become two peoples with vastly different rights.

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