Māori Crown portfolio looks like 'a tokenistic toothless taniwha,' writes 1 NEWS reporter Maiki Sherman

The Government’s new Crown Māori portfolio ran the risk of looking tokenistic when it was first announced, and now the released detail of its scope all but confirms this.

Kelvin Davis spent months travelling the breadth of the country on a consultation roadshow.

He labelled it the start of a “new way of working” and promised not to repeat past mistakes when it came to the Crown-Māori relationship.

But it seems there was one person the minister forgot to consult with, Winston Peters.

The NZ First leader forced both Kelvin Davis and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to pull back on announcing detail of the portfolio at a media event last week.

The stage was set – the 10th floor of the Beehive, no less – and included a raft of notable Māori dotted around the Cabinet table.

“We are no longer at the negotiating table,” Ms Ardern said.

“We now sit at the cabinet table.”

It was a symbolic gesture aimed at creating a picture of true partnership.

The problem?

Mr Peters has always maintained the Crown never agreed to a “partnership” with Māori when both signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

“I've never believed that, and I said so back in 1986 when Justice Cooke made that claim,” he said.

And so, while a bunch of journalists waited at ground level of the Beehive, and the media event regarding the portfolio was delayed by around 45 minutes, Cabinet ministers on level 10 debated the scope of the role with NZ First vehemently opposed.

What unfolded a short time later was nothing more than a photo opportunity and a chance to hear “one last submission” from the group of Māori sitting around the Cabinet table – or so the rhetoric went.

It was a public blunder and an embarrassment for the Government.

The coalition can attempt to double down on the facade there’s “nothing to see here” – but they’ll be going blue in the face before they convince anyone paying attention.

When 1 NEWS asked Mr Peters if he had vetoed the announcement, he requested the question be submitted in writing.

Is there trouble in coalition paradise? The Inside Parliament reporters discuss the developments. Source: 1 NEWS

“I can’t answer that question because I don’t have any recall of that,” he claimed.

The irony was baffling.

A deputy prime minister who could not recall what took place only two days earlier in Cabinet but could state categorically his position on Crown Māori partnership - in 1986 - when Justice Cooke made “that claim”.

A day later and the NZ First leader was happy to report “we’ve fixed it” and “it’s all solved”.

The detail though – as has been the case on this portfolio – was not forthcoming. 

The end result saw the scope of the role announced a week later featuring a watered-down rebrand of units already in action now amalgamating as one.

Meanwhile, key themes to emerge from submissions were ignored completely.

One of those was a plea to reform New Zealand’s constitution.

Several submitters – including the Human Rights Commission – said constitutional reform was necessary and pointed to the need for particular emphasis on the Treaty of Waitangi.

But the idea of any such reform would never have gone down well with NZ First and it seems they made their view crystal clear.

1 NEWS asked if NZ First would support the new portfolio looking at constitutional reform, to which Mr Peters’ replied, “that is not going to be its focus”.

When stated it was one of the bullet points in a press release on the matter, he responded “yes, but not in the way that it originally was”.

This means the original intent around constitutional reform was shelved.

Mr Davis also confirmed it was part of the draft discussions but claimed it was “not a priority” at this stage.

What was signed off was a vague commitment for “constitutional arrangements” supporting partnerships between the Crown and Māori into the future.

That does not go anywhere near constitutional reform.

So much for a symbol of finally taking the relationship seriously - Maiki Sherman

Another key theme in submissions was the placement of the Crown Māori portfolio with many suggesting it be a standalone agency to reflect the importance of the partnership.

The reality though will see it sit within the Ministry of Justice with Kelvin Davis saying it was a “cheaper” option.

So much for a symbol of finally taking the relationship seriously. 

One thing’s for sure there is no new money allocated to the portfolio, with the budget coming from within current baselines.

In fact, the minister couldn’t even say how many staff the agency would have, only to say it would start off “relatively small”.

What the Government was keen to boast about though was the name had changed – proudly pointing to the fact the word ‘Māori’ would now be placed before the word ‘Crown’.

Thus, revealing the Māori Crown Relations - Te Arawhiti (The Bridge) portfolio.

While the name is all good and well – the substance within the role falls short of anything particularly meaningful.

It looks like a tokenistic toothless taniwha - as is so often the case with Māori legislative attempts heralded as the next best thing.

However, it's been gutted as a result of a strong-headed coalition partner and a minister who failed to fight for what was meant to be the dawn of a new era in the Crown Māori relationship – or make that, Māori Crown relationship.

Mr Davis has spoken of the need for a business case to be put forward to establish the office with the hope of completing that by the end of the year.

While this has the potential to create further headaches for the minister, it could also be a lifeline of redemption.

The challenge is whether he can bring in a bit more weight behind the new portfolio.

A word of advice though - don’t forget to run it past Mr Peters. 

The influence of Winston Peters is also believed to be putting the Prime Minister under pressure from rival MPs. Source: 1 NEWS