If the Treaty of Waitangi sets out a relationship that is based on partnership, consultation, protection of Māori taonga, and the mutual benefit of the Treaty partners, then the handling of the public television bids for the Rugby World Cup broadcasting rights suggests some worrying signs for the health of the Treaty relationship in its 170th year.
As many people reading this will be aware, the basic issue related to the bid made by Māori Television Service (MTS) back in September for the broadcasting rights to games in next year’s Rugby World Cup. Significant funding was to be provided by Te Puni Kōkiri for that bid. Competitors, including state-owned Television New Zealand saw this as providing MTS with an unfair advantage. It seems that some Government ministers were also unhappy with this bid. The Prime Minister talked of the need to justify Te Puni Kōkiri money being spent on the bid and the need to try and ensure that all New Zealanders are able to view the 16 games that were the subject of the bid. The latter being a reference to MTS’s coverage of 85% of the country. Eventually a deal was reached whereby MTS would be the nominal lead for the bid but in fact most games would be screening simultaneously on TVNZ and commercial broadcaster, TV3. This bid has now been accepted by the International Rugby Board. For further details, media reports at the time (such as this, and this) set out the background of events. And eventually a memo that originated from Te Puni Kōkiri (the Ministry of Māori Development) was circulating which provided a timeline of who knew what and when about the Māori Television Service bid. Audrey Young reproduced this in her NZ Herald politics blog.
What is worrying from a Treaty of Waitangi perspective is the way that the Government moved to limit the benefits to MTS, an organization which was established to make good on Treaty of Waitangi obligations. The Māori Television Service (Te Aratuku Whakaata Irirangi Māori) Act 2003 established MTS in its current form. Section 3 sets out the purpose of the Act and makes it clear that the purpose is to understood in the context of the recognition
that the Crown and Māori together have an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi to preserve, protect, and promote te reo Māori.
The Minister of Māori Affairs and Te Puni Kōkiri were convinced of the value to Māori development of supporting the MTS bid, and yet this objective was forced to take a back-seat for, quite frankly, less than convincing reasons. Aside from the MTS legislation, there have also been numerous cases and Waitangi Tribunal reports relating to broadcasting issues in connection with the Treaty-based protection of te reo Māori (the Māori language). But with its handling of this issue, the current Government has shown that it does not place a high priority on its Treaty obligations in this area. In fact, it has gone out of its way to protect other, somewhat marginal interests, ahead of the Treaty interest in this instance. That hardly seems consistent with the kind of active protection of Treaty interests that the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal have found to be a key principle within the Treaty partnership.