8 Nov 2023

Former PM Jim Bolger on ACT's Treaty referendum plan - 'It won't and shouldn't happen'

6:03 am on 8 November 2023
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Former National prime minister Jim Bolger. Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

A former National prime minister says the ACT party has "zero" chance of getting a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi through government negotiations.

ACT has staunchly lobbied for a constitutional overhaul; pitching for the Treaty principles to be rewritten, legislated and ratified by the public.

Leader David Seymour says he is "optimistic" he can persuade National to agree with this policy in negotiations but others put his chances at nil.

"I don't see the National Party agreeing to it," former National prime minister Jim Bolger said.

"National did a lot of work and made huge progress on resolving Treaty issues. They're not going to tear that up because David Seymour wants to. No, it won't and shouldn't happen."

Former National Party cabinet minister in charge of Treaty negotiations Sir Douglas Graham said he could not see any sense in the proposal.

"I think [Christopher Luxon's] made it pretty clear he doesn't favour the idea and I can understand why. So I would think it's dead in the water and thank heavens for that."

ACT wants to introduce a new law - a Treaty rewrite - that states all New Zealand citizens have the same rights and discrimination based on ethnicity is illegal.

This legislation would be subject to the usual process of debate and public submissions before the public would be asked to ratify it through a yes or no vote.

Incoming prime minister Christopher Luxon has stopped short of categorically ruling out a referendum though he has distanced his party from the policy.

"Our view through the campaign is well understood. We think a referendum would be divisive and unhelpful," he told Morning Report on Monday.

Both Bolger and Graham have been critical of Labour's handling of co-governance policy; Bolger last year challenged then prime minister Jacinda Ardern to provide clarity about the government's intentions.

Bolger stands by this criticism, saying co-governance was "an appalling piece of policy", but said ACT's proposed referendum on the Treaty was quite separate from it.

"These are sensitive issues. If they're going to be considered at all they have to be considered in a calm and reasonable way and referendums are not there for calm and reasonable discussion."

Senior Māori Labour MP Willie Jackson went as far as saying a Treaty referendum risked a repeat of the civil unrest seen during the 1981 Springbok tour on TVNZ's Q&A at the weekend.

Political commentator Peter Dunne did not agree the backlash would go that far but said it would be controversial and not in Luxon's best interests.

"He's going to have a difficult enough task, as it is, on two fronts. One, managing a three-way coalition. And secondly with only 38 percent of the vote this time around, he really needs to add another 7 or 8 percent to National's vote to be confident about a second term.

"Governments don't normally add to their vote during their term so he's got a massive task, even on that front, without any external contention like a referendum or all of the divisive debate that that would cause."

Dunne said ACT might instead be offered up a "halfway" solution, such as putting a stop to Treaty principle clauses in new legislation or walking back existing clauses.

Asked about his thoughts on a compromise on the ACT's referendum policy, Seymour said he saw addressing the principles of the Treaty as "critical".

He would not let on where his party's proposed referendum has landed in negotiations, only saying he was "happy with the engagement" to date.

Seymour said Aotearoa's constitutional arrangements must "enjoy broad support" to be sustainable and it's only democratic his Treaty proposal be put to a referendum.

"I believe it's time to close the loop and allow Parliament, and ultimately the people of New Zealand, to have a say on what those Treaty principles mean," he said.

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