Hard News by Russell Brown


Gilbert Wong's feature story on Don Brash in the new Metro is very good. Unlike most of the Brash profiles so far, it seeks to determine who actually wrote the Orewa speech and from what sources, and how faithful it is to those sources.

It also makes me think that we will in the end be grateful to Brash and his party for their influence on our 20-year modern search for a place to stand on nationhood and the Treaty - and that that influence is simply part of those 20 years, and not a conclusive critique of them.

In the story, Mai Chen expresses what was my initial response to the speech and its accompanying briefing: that it's all very well to promise to put forward a bill to repeal all Treaty clauses in every piece of legislation where they appear, but, after two decades of legal precedent and tribunal decisions, you're best be prepared to spend a long time in court afterwards.

Amazingly, according to Wong, "Brash says he will have to get advice on how to go about what he promised before he could comment on the practicality of it."

Pardon? And this is National's problem: it has charged up a number of intellectual and political blind alleys. You've promised far-reaching alterations to the statutes whose practicality you can't vouchsafe. You've condemned to death public health practices that the relevant professionals, and the research, seem to endorse. You've departed from your party's core respect for property rights and due process on the foreshores and demanded that the gummint wade in. You've demanded a debate, been offered consultation on the terms of reference for a royal commission, then snubbed it because you're right anyway and there's no need to discuss it. And you've set ideology against practical merit.

Wong walks Brash through a scenario: if it is more efficient and effective for Maori health providers to treat Maori patients, but we don't have enough Maori doctors, how ought we respond? Not, of course, through any direct facilitation of Maori doctor training, which National has merrily ruled out as racist. Brash winds up simply denying the evidence.

The story concludes with Chris Trotter predicting - again - the demise of the Labour Party. I think not, and not just because the polls have started to turn back.

Now that it has been woken up, Labour will be more nimble, and less hidebound, than National on this, although it will continue to be stung by the benign neglect of recent years. Although it has earned itself (or perhaps regained) a constituency, National, having humiliated Georgina Te Heuheu, lacks anyone to carry the debate forward in a constructive way. Brash lacks warmth (and, judging by the Metro story, any real affinity for the issue) and Brownlee lacks dignity. The basic good faith of the National governments of the 1990s seems to have gone missing.

In respect of the Treaty, you can expect to hear less of the word "partnership" (a significant source of irritation and uncertainty in the whole debate) and more of the word "co-operation" in government rhetoric. "Reasonable co-operation on major issues of common concern," was the wording in the 1989 definition of Treaty principles by the Justice Department: it implies just as clearly the need to consult, without the torment of working out what the hell a partnership means. If this does happen, and it does create more clarity and certainty, then by all means thank Dr Brash.

One more thing: Trotter, like quite a few others, including Pamela Stirling in The Listener, is derisive of the idea that education about the Treaty would aid the debate. I've never known a situation in which the very idea of education has developed such a bad name.

This is counterintuitive. Are they saying that people don't make better decisions if they know more? Trotter, with a sort of proletarian fondness that would seem to defy speculation that he's turned into a proper right-winger, praises the "almost intuitive grasp" of the issues displayed by ordinary Pakeha in the Study of New Zealand Values, which indicated that a third of us think the Treaty of Waitangi should be abolished.

I don't think so. I think, as Michael King contended, we are people with a tradition of commonsense and decency - and we'll carry on working out who we are, revelling in our recent history and not just flushing it away.