In 1904 Prime Minister "King Dick" Seddon was contemplating a difficult election the following year. The country was torn by the divisive issue of land tenure: should leasehold land be made freehold or retained in leasehold? There were passionate advocates of both views, not least within the caucus of the governing Liberal Party. Seddon hit on the device of holding a Royal Commission. He carefully chose the commissioners: two were for leasehold, two for freehold, and there was a muddled commissioner in the middle. The report solved nothing, but it did take the heat off the ministry for eighteen months. Seddon kept referring difficult issues to the Commission. By election time he had cleverly neutralised the day's major controversy and won his greatest victory. But the dispute hadn't gone away.
Helen Clark is hoping history repeats itself. An inquiry into race-based policies that she brushed aside not long ago suddenly looks attractive. Her ministers are making contradictory statements on Maori policy, her Maori MPs contemplate walking the plank, and National has taken the high ground. An inquiry might shut down debate over race-based social funding. The fatally flawed foreshore and seabed legislation could be put to one side, if Maori co-operated. Other victims of Don Brash, like United, also want an inquiry. Anything to take the heat out of that Orewa speech.
Had a Parliamentary Select Committee conducted the inquiry, which Helen Clark initially favoured, it would have become the plaything of the ministry using Labour and United MPs on it. The report could have been slowed until after the next election, just as the inquiry into the Crown Forest Rental Trust was in 2002. But it also had the potential to degenerate into "a circus and a farce" as Clark herself labelled the Corngate Inquiry. If instead there's to be a Royal Commission then the Prime Minister, like King Dick, gets the last word on appointments. Can't you see it? One each from the Treaty and welfare industries that have farmed Maori disadvantage for twenty years and want to keep doing so. Then there'd be a token who believed that race-based policies are contrary both to the Treaty and to basic human rights, and probably a muddled Anglican cleric, and a carefully-selected chair who'd do the Prime Minister's bidding. Few Royal Commissions have been independent. They are devices to serve governments' immediate needs.
Is a Royal Commission needed? As in Seddon's day, I believe it would only sideline issues needing action. It couldn't produce much that's useful. Most answers stare ministers in the face. National and Labour governments have muddled along for thirty years, seized by the fatal conceit that ministers and bureaucracies can help Maori improve their socio-economic status by preferential treatment. But affirmative action the world over fails the really needy, and ends up assisting the more fortunate. It doesn't tackle the root causes of disadvantage. They lie deep within Maori society, in welfare dependency, some woeful parenting, and tribal, rather than urban-based leadership. A healthy economy is Maori's first need. "It's the Economy, Stupid", Bill Clinton told his campaign workers. Well-performing economies always create jobs. They open up avenues for minorities, and professional opportunities for them, and everyone else. Bureaucracies can only produce jobs within themselves.
Nor is a Commission of Inquiry needed into the Treaty's importance. It couldn't revise the fact that it was a key part of our history. The Treaty enabled settlement to take place in a world where Maori numbered 100,000 and Europeans 2,000. It gave guarantees to Maori about their possessions. An honest inquiry would also confirm the obvious: in the years since 1840 New Zealand has changed fundamentally. Virtually all who now call themselves Maori are more Pakeha in their ethnicity. Many want to adhere to the Maori side of their backgrounds. Fine. Noone should deny them. The State must ensure they retain that option. But any dispassionate review of the Treaty will conclude that it didn't guarantee a full-blooded Maori, let alone someone more Pakeha than Maori 164 years later, a right to preferential treatment over others. Article 3 talks about equal rights.
All the options facing the Government are hard. They could gain from confronting them. The polls show an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders want equal treatment for everyone. Ministers should fix past mistakes, unstitch racial preference, and replace it with help based on demonstrable need. Then Pacific Islanders, Indians, Asians and Europeans could walk along side Maori, not two steps behind.