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$6m Treaty website taken down after 10 days

20 February 2004

The flagship website of the Government's $6 million Treaty education programme is offline 10 days after its scheduled launch during heightened sensitivity about race relations.

Officials now say it could be months before the website is operating, while material prepared by historian Claudia Orange is checked for historical accuracy and "reworked" for a general audience.

The delay has sparked claims that sensitivities about the timing are behind the delay. Its scheduled launch coincided with a massive public response to a speech by National Party leader Don Brash calling for an end to policies favouring Maori.

"I'm not necessarily sure we'll be able to find a piece of paper from the minister telling them (the unit) to put it off, but I'm sure they would have received signals that were unmistakable that this would not be such a flash time to head off down this track," National MP Murray McCully said.

"I think a campaign of this sort would make the charge of the Light Brigade look like an outrageous success."

State Services Minister Trevor Mallard dismissed suggestions that the Government was involved as "utter rubbish" and said the date of the website launch had "never been publicised as it was never definite".

A December 17 cabinet paper said the website was being designed and would be launched on February 6, Waitangi Day.

But Mr Mallard said he was advised on January 16 that there was likely to be a delay while key Treaty experts looked over the website material.

Responsibility for the Treaty information programme was handed to Mr Mallard after sensitivity about Attorney-General Margaret Wilson and Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia fronting it.

Plans to establish the unit were announced last year and former diplomat Tia Barrett was put in charge.

It has been labelled a "propaganda" unit by the Government's political opponents and Labour has been sensitive in the past about it being seen to be driving a particular ideological agenda.

Mr Barrett said yesterday the information programme was still in the "developmental phase". He rejected suggestions the timing of the website launch had become sensitive.

"We were here before the debate. And we'll continue to provide these sources of information for the public so they can inform themselves about the Treaty and the issues around it and therefore have a basis on which to assess what the debate is about."

The unit had organised sponsorship for the first round of public meetings designed to deliver information about the Treaty and was looking at developing programmes for radio and television.

Mr Barrett said the website was supposed to be up and running on February 6, but it had been decided to do more work.

"When we had a look at the material we thought, we will need to have that looked at again closely by historians and specialists and so on just to make sure that what we're saying has a high degree of accuracy around it.

This is a programme for providing factual information to the public on the Treaty."

Tracy Watkins,
The Dominion Post
© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004

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