National's Simon Bridges wants all historic Treaty claims settled by 2024

2019-01-24 03:36:19

National leader Simon Bridges has begun his political year with a joke and some aspiration.

That "aspiration" was to settle every historic Treaty claim by 2024 if he gets back into Government - an echo of a similar promise made by John Key that never eventuated.

Bridges was speaking on Thursday afternoon at Rātana in Rangitikei, the first serious event of the political year, and his first as party leader. The year 2024 would be a century since the church's founder first took a petition on Treaty claims to Parliament.

Unfortunately for Bridges, that founder also forged an alliance with the Labour Party 12 years later.

The joke came after Bridges said his party felt like "we've done the mahi - Labour gets the votes".

He noted that there was some support for National in the small Māori community however; last election one person voted for National MP Ian McElvie at the counting station here - although that was "someone who got lost", he quipped.

It's a joke, but it's also the truth. Bridges and his deputy Paula Bennett are both Māori. But despite a list of Treaty negotiations under their belt and a now-longstanding relationship with the Māori Party, National don't get much of the vote - Labour won every single Māori seat at the last election.

While not wanting to sound whiney, Bridges made clear in his first big speech of the year that he wanted to increase that vote.

That began with the joke, and then a bit of an admission: Bridges said the last National Government "didn't have all the answers - we didn't get it all right".

He said Labour had overpromised however, and was not delivering.

Bridges had two political gifts on Thursday.

First, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wasn't at Rātana. She's on the other side of the world at Davos in Switzerland, talking to the ultra-rich about climate change and wellbeing.

Bridges said he wasn't "critical of that decision" (Key did the same in 2015) but was critical of the wellbeing talk.

"I do think when you're talking about wellbeing a lot of New Zealanders would say 'frankly that sounds pretty woolly, what is that?'."

"It's back here where the issues are."

The image of Bridges meeting with Māori while Ardern talked about "woolly" things at a ski resort was tough to beat.

The other gift for Bridges was Housing Minister Phil Twyford's admission on Wednesday that his flagship KiwiBuild policy would radically undershoot its first-year target, delivering just 300 homes instead of 1000 by July 1.

"[2019] is a year where their chickens will come home to roost," Bridges said of the Government.

"The big talk on housing...and on poverty won't live up to the reality."

Bridges spent more time on drug reform than any other issue during his speech, noting, twice, that he didn't think decriminalisation of drugs would be good for Māoridom.

The speaker who followed him would probably disagree.

Rātana provides a unique stage for opposition parties - even those not in Parliament - to come together in the spotlight as a kind of Government-in-waiting.

The next speaker was Opportunities Party (TOP) leader Geoff Simmons, who spoke at length about the need for Pākehā to look for mana over money.

That may works in Rātana but a future National-TOP government could have some issues with it in Remuera.

Asked of his opinion on Simmons' speech, Bridges said he wasn't keen to get into political commentary.

The Rātana visit came just days after Bridges made long-time National MP Nick Smith the new spokesman on Crown/Māori relations.

Almost immediately a Labour MP dredged up a 2003 quote from the Foreshore and Seabed debate, where Smith said "ordinary New Zealanders, who have shown a huge degree of tolerance to treaty claims and spending on Maori issues, have had enough".

Speaking to media on Thursday, Smith was much more amicable - even noting some displeasure with the racially-charged Orewa speech then-leader Don Brash delivered at that time.

But old habits die hard: Smith also made sure to note that he wanted to act as a guard against there being two types of "citizenship" in New Zealand. When pressed, Smith could not name anything that the Government were doing which was promoting some kind of separate citizenship for Maori.

Perhaps he could have used some notes. Bridges made plenty of use of his during his speech - even checking he had the right amount of "Tēnā koutous" done before ending with "katoa".

It always pays to come prepared.

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