[This is a corrected version of this blog entry. For some reason, my original post got cut short, so I’ve had to re-visit it and add the ending.]
Today is Waitangi day in New Zealand. It’s a day when we commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, an historic agreement between the Crown and Iwi (Maori tribal groups) that has come to be regarded as a founding document for New Zealand.
During the Labour Party’s lengthy term as the government of New Zealand, a term that – much to my own relief – ended recently, a perception was either built up or perpetuated that the left is the friend of Iwi in protecting their rights as provided in the Treaty, while the right were out to undermine those rights in the interests of their own evil, greed and desire to exploit people.
Perhaps it is this cartoonish misconception that motivated two people to attempt to physically attack Prime minister John Key yesterday when he arrived at Waitangi to take part in commemorations for the first time in his term as PM.
For many people, and many Maori people in particular, however, this perception was severely rocked when the Labour government passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004. Among other things, the new law prevented cases about certain types of Treaty grievances to be taken to any type of court, and declared via legislation, that the legitimate title to parts of New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed are held by the Crown. The legislature stepped right into the middle of the judiciary and pre-emptively ended disputes that would otherwise have been heard by a tribunal. For many Maori and others, this was seen as part of a trend towards corruption and thuggishness by the Labour government. For some it was seen as “betrayal,” suggesting that the left should naturally be seen as supportive of Treaty rights and seeing that these are provided for. Somehow, the Labour Party had created this image of itself and managed to get people thinking that the opposite is true of the right.
This image is fundamentally wrong. The foreshore and seabed Act showed people that, and the friendliness of the current National government towards the Maori party and Maori interests has shown it further. Interestingly, other than the Maori members of the Labour party who left that party in outrage in 2004-05, the most vocal critics of the Act were members of the ACT party, generally regarded (rightly or otherwise) as the most “right wing” party in Parliament. How could this be?
[This is where the original version of this post got cut short. The remainder follows.]
The answer is simple: On the left, individual rights and contractual arrangements are dispensable in the name of the “good of society,” even when that good is only construed in terms of a policy goal of furthering the left’s agenda (for example, state ownership of natural assets). The right (not the absurd caricature of the right as some sort of greedy despotic fascist state that is painted by some social commentators) in New Zealand shares much common ground with the classical liberal tradition in political philosophy (National has unfortunately courted the Labour vote by sacrificing much of this, but that’s another story). In that tradition – unlike the collectivist outlook of the left – individual rights and contracts that generate them are not expendable when the state deems them to get in the way of its pursuit of the ideal society. A Classical Liberal approach is one that has no place for a Government that steps in and changes the rules to ensure that people can’t plead their cause in a dispute between the state and the private party. To act in that way would break down the very conceptual distinction between left and right, between collectivist and individualist. You’re allowed your day in court and no big brother is going to stand in your way. Far from being a force to be feared when it comes to upholding the obligations that the Crown have to Iwi, the fact that the Maori Party is now allied with the parties of the right (in spite of National’s unfortunate slide towards big social spending and its pandering to the fans of social engineering), and the fact that that perceived bastion of Iwi safety, the Labour party, is no longer in power, should actually serve as some encouragement to those who have become frustrated that legitimate treaty issues have received such poor treatment.
Now if only National would take less tax, spend less, kill fewer babies – and a bunch of other things that aren’t springing to mind just now – we’d be getting somewhere.