Claire Trevett: Judith Collins’ has grabbed the agenda on ‘separatism’, the PM needs to grab it back

After months in the doldrums, National Party leader Judith Collins has finally caught a wind.

It may be a foul wind, but it is wind nonetheless.

Collins found it gusting from the He Puapua report, a report which canvasses a range of options to make Māori rangatiratanga a reality.

That report has sat on Government desks since 2019 with nothing happening, and without being made public until recently after the Ombudsman intervened.

It does not include firm recommendations, but rather a range of options and an ideal of what New Zealand would look like if the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was to be met in full.

It is not intended to cater for the reality of politics, and governments considering such reports tend to opt for something well short of the proposed “ideal” for the sake of politics.

Collins has chosen to isolate the most extreme end of those options in catching her wind.

She has also linked the report in with recent moves by Labour to scrap a veto of Māori wards, and to set up a Māori Health Authority in its health reforms.

Collins claimed that showed the start of a programme to “segregate by stealth” – and all without having given the public a right to have a say.

The first question to ask about such claims is whether Collins is right.

Such speeches are easily dismissed as beating the race drum to try to get a lift in the polls.

That may be true.

Arguments such as Collins’ may not have quite the traction that they once did, but the language Collins deployed indicates she has some hope a poll lift will be a consequence.

It is also notable Collins’ dedicated much of her speech on Saturday to the topic, just after swearing that National would focus on the issues that mattered to people – such as housing, transport and infrastructure. She barely mentioned them again.

But she is also right about the need for the PM to confront the report’s contents properly, rather than trying to shut it down by dismissing it as “desperate” politics.

Collins has stretched some bows (and credibility) by claiming the report was some kind of secret Government agenda to set up a two-state system.

There would have been enough mileage for Collins in grilling the Government over the Māori Health Authority without wading into the report.

Health Minister Andrew Little sought to rebut Collins’ claims that was part of a wider programme of stealthy “segregation”, by saying he had not even read the report.

There should and will be questioning about just how the Māori Health Authority will work, the extent of its veto powers over decisions by Health NZ and over regional and local health plans.

Reports by external authors are part and parcel of formulating Government policy.

They are rarely adopted holus-bolus. Governments pick the bits they like and reject the bits they don’t – especially if politically unpalatable.

Given the amount of time it has languished on a shelf, the Government clearly did not consider this one a priority.

That is a far more credible explanation than the suggestion any government would pursue such fundamental reform without taking it to the public first.

But Collins is now setting the agenda on this issue, with support from Act’s David Seymour.

Ardern’s predecessors will warn her that if these issues are not staunched, they can turn into festering sores.

Thus far, Ardern has said the report did not necessarily reflect the views of Cabinet, was yet to be considered and the Government’s response would come in good time.

The only measure she has ruled out is a separate Māori Parliament.

Collins is also suspicious about why the He Puapua report was kept under wraps until recently.

There may be an innocent explanation for it. The PM and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson have both said Covid-19 and the election intervened, and the report was simply put on ice.

Collins has well and truly melted it.

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