21 Apr 2010

No secrecy over Sharples' UN statement, says Key

10:17 am on 21 April 2010

Prime Minister John Key says there was no secrecy surrounding New Zealand's affirmation of a United Nations declaration on indigenous rights.

Maori Affairs Minister and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples read out a statement to a UN forum in New York giving New Zealand's support to the declaration.

No notice was given of Dr Sharples' appearance at the UN, and last week Mr Key would say only that progress was being made on the indigenous rights declaration.

But Mr Key says it has been no secret the Government wanted to affirm the declaration once legal and constitutional issues were resolved. Furthermore, it was a nice touch that Dr Sharples was able to make the announcement in New York, he said.

But Labour leader Phil Goff says New Zealanders should have been told first that this was the Government's intention.

The ACT Party, one of the Government's support parties, says its "no surprises" agreement with National has been breached by the UN affirmation.

ACT leader Rodney Hide told Parliament on Tuesday afternoon that he received no advance notice.

Mr Key said Mr Hide had a fair point, and he should have been advised of the announcement.

Mr Key says the affirmation is symbolic and will not result in a lot of change for New Zealand, which has always supported the overall aspirations of the declaration, but it does not change the country's fundamental laws or constitution.

He says the move is a symbolic way of saying New Zealand respects indigenous rights and adds New Zealand has had a much prouder record than many other countries who've affirmed the declaration before it.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully told Morning Report that signing the document will allow New Zealand to clarify its position and exclude itself from some aspects of the agreement which relate to the law in this country.

Dr Sharples' statement said Maori held a special status as tangata whenua and had an interest in all policy and legislative matters.

He said the decision was made a few weeks ago to sign the declaration after long-running negotiations between the Maori Party and National.

Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta says National and Maori Party are telling Maori two different things and it remains to be seen whether National is serious about implementing any of the intentions in the declarations.

Company's fears

The company behind Northland's biggest energy project fears its proposal could be challenged again in court because of New Zealand's decision to adopt the UN declaration.

Crest Energy wants to build a 200-megawatt power station using tidal flow in and out of Kaipara Harbour.

Company director Anthony Hopkins says a local hapu, Te Uri O Hau, took a case to the High Court to block the project last May.

That action was turned down but a significant part of the case was an alleged breach of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people.

The company fears the adoption of the declaration could lead to further legal action, depending on what caveats are adopted.

Treaty ratification welcomed

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia says the declaration reinforces the Government's international reputation on human rights and its accountability to the UN.

However, Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta says the National Party and Maori Party are telling Maori two different things and it remains to be seen whether National is serious about implementing any of the intentions in the declarations.

Professsor of Maori Studies at Auckland University Margaret Mutu says it was humiliating for Maori in 2007 when New Zealand was one of only four countries which refused to sign the declaration, and she was embarassed when visiting the UN last year.

"To be at the United Nations and people to look at me and say 'what is wrong with your Government and what is wrong with you Maori, that you can't get your Government to sign up to this' - so we were bearing some of the blame."

John Tamihere from the Urban Maori Authorities says that while it may not mean much to ordinary Maori, it does send a signal.

"It's got a feel-good factor about it, it's got an acknowledgment that once again, in indigenous issues, we are up there as a global leader."

Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon, hopes it shows attitudes to Maori are changing in this country.

In 2007, New Zealand, along with Australia, Canada, and the United States, voted against the declaration.

In April 2009, Australia officially adopted the declaration, reversing the decision of the previous Government.