Island Life by David Slack

A Sense of Proportion

That tramping noise you hear is the sound of thousands of National party voters heading home. Their man has pushed the right button and they're saluting him.

Shame it had to be THAT button.

I've written quite a few speeches for politicians about Treaty issues. Politicians approach this topic with more care than just about any. You draft and you redraft. And everyone wants to have a go at it. Remember the Sesquicentennial in 1990? The Treaty was 150 years old and everyone was coming to Waitangi. I spent much of that January working on speech drafts. One for the Prime Minister, one for the Queen.

This is how it works when everyone wants a piece of the action:

The process started out in the best possible way; the PM invited a few esteemed friends - Sir Ken Keith, John McGrath and Alex Frame among them - to a meeting to talk over ideas for the speeches. We looked at themes, issues and messages and talked about history. They were marvelous people to work with: thoughtful, insightful. You couldn't have left that meeting without feeling positive about the Treaty and the legal and academic work that was being done to consider its ramifications.

If there was one overarching idea that we settled on, I would say it was this: you can't have unity if you fail to recognise and act upon injustices.

I went away, wrote the two drafts and then circulated them. My desk soon started filling up with annotated pages from every corner of the Beehive. Everyone had their two cents to put in, and it added up to several dollars' worth. No-one seemed too bothered about what we wrote for the Queen's speech, but they all had wildly varying ideas about what the Prime Minister should be saying. I immediately discarded a suggested opening sentence from one senior bureaucrat which ran to 128 words. Other contributions were more difficult to deal with. Some made valid points, but strayed too far from the theme of the speech. Others tried to hijack the theme of the speech altogether.

I redrafted a second and third time, and re-circulated the drafts. Things started to get testy as certain factions perceived that other factions were holding sway. My eight pages of A4 were turning into a tug-of-war rope. Significantly, I found myself incorporating most of the ideas Margaret Wilson was advocating. She had the clearest understanding of what the speech needed to be achieving, and as the process dragged on, she finally said "Look, don't feel you have to accommodate everyone. Write a new draft, and just give it to Geoffrey." I did. He liked it. He made his usual embellishments and adjustments, and we were done.

If you watched the speeches live on TV from Waitangi, you'll recall that this was one more day at Waitangi that didn't go altogether well. Someone biffed a wet T-shirt at the Queen; the speeches were delivered to an audience that included several hundred chanting and heckling protestors. The only pleasant surprise I got during the whole afternoon was to hear the words of the Queens' speech being offered largely in the form I'd submitted them, but with the inclusion of one very nice phrase. The Treaty, she said, had been "imperfectly observed." I love the British way of dealing with difficult matters.

But the bigger surprise came a day or two later. I got a call from a lawyer I knew who was a partner in one of the big Wellington law firms; the kind of person I would have confidently predicted would be voting for the National Party to which Winston Peters then belonged. It would be fair to say that the speeches took the liberal position that you would expect of a Labour administration, and yet he wanted me to know how much they had impressed him.

I wonder what he made of Don Brash's speech.

Working on a sample of friends, family and acquaintances who have offered their unprompted point of view to me in the last two weeks, the answer is, I'm disappointed to report: Loved It.

What button has he pushed, exactly? In my assessment, it's this: vague notions that the Treaty process is out of control; that it's costing a fortune, that the country is being held to ransom by an endless list of Treaty demands; that Maori receive preferential treatment in countless aspects of daily lives.

I believe the technical legal term for these propositions is: Baseless unsubstantiated assertions.

I've been finding it frustrating trying to discuss any of these issues without turning things sour.

The last time it seemed this tricky was the winter of the 1981 Springbok tour. I don't know if we're any better or worse than any other nation at this, but it seems to me that we can't debate the tough issues well. We have a tendency to trade assertions and keep stating our intractable positions in increasingly loud voices.

Or we just clam up, which is what I seem to have been doing in the last few months. I wonder why that could be. I used to feel much more able to debate an issue than I feel with this one.

It has slowly dawned on me that I haven't had the solid facts at hand to to aid my argument. And so, readers, I've prepared a web page to aid the cause. If you click here, you'll find something that may help you, just as it's helping me, to engage in this debate with a little factual support.

It's a pop quiz, but it's also a collection of material and links to help people get an accurate sense of proportion about some of the issues Dr Brash has alluded to.

I think we need to recognise that what we see at the outset of the Treaty claim process is a far cry from what we see at resolution.

I think we need to recognise that it is Parliament, in the end, that always has the final say in legal matters, which means control is, and always will be, in the hands of the voters.

I think we need to recognize that this Government, and indeed the one that preceded it, has actually been achieving measured and effective results, which settle long-standing injustices, which aim to reconcile opposing views and which seek answers to issues that cannot be resolved with simplistic responses.

For the last ten years, I've been reading the speeches Don Brash has written, and admiring his clear and logical expression of good ideas. I really didn't think that the first time I went to write about him, I'd be finding fault with one of his speeches. But there is much fault to be found here, not so much in the logic of the speech, but in the emotional response he has sought out and provoked.

The tub's being thumped and people are getting a bit excited. We need to get a sense of proportion.