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David Round

Reflections on the Treaty

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In 1998, when the Canterbury University Press published my book Truth or Treaty? Commonsense Questions about the Treaty of Waitangi, the public mood was somewhat different from today’s. I began my second chapter with a gloomy paragraph which, although it certainly contains much truth, nevertheless seems, in today’s climate, just a little over the top:

‘A blight lies on our country. It destroys conversations and friendships, sours all political discourse and disrupts dinner parties. It obsesses us all; we neglect other pressing issues and tear ourselves apart over this one. It encourages divisiveness, bitterness and hatred. One side labels the other reactionaries and racists; the other replies with the labels of weaklings, dupes and fools. It is the Treaty ~ once, long ago, a sign of hope and a harmonious future, but now, if we are not careful, a recipe for anarchy and civil war.’

I would not be quite so dire in my predictions now. But I must make it absolutely clear that it seemed a genuine possibility then. If it now seems unlikely, perhaps that is because the warnings which were sounded were eventually heeded. It is very difficult now to understand the atmosphere of intolerance and fear which then surrounded the issue. Over a period of years I wrote letters to the Christchurch Press, and the occasional article, reflecting on the absurdities, illogicalities and injustices of much Treaty agitation. I was very often a lone voice. I was often congratulated on my courage by people who did not dare to raise their own voices. I felt nervous myself. There was genuine fear about the consequences of speaking out. Whatever I may once have innocently believed, I learnt long ago never to believe the pious claim of liberals that they ‘disagree with what I say but will fight to the death for my right to say it’. By and large ~ there are honourable exceptions, certainly ~ I have found caring persons of advanced liberal views to be among the most intolerant and unpleasant of our fellow-citizens, and all too ready to resort to personal abuse and character assassination. I could name names…

The atmosphere has changed. The public now does not hesitate to criticise foolish, ill-considered and racist proposals ~ Pita Sharples’ proposal, for example, just in the last fortnight, that all those of Maori descent should automatically have free entry into universities. Caring tolerant non-judgmental people still unthinkingly label the public as racists and rednecks, but that cheap personal abuse has long been discredited. That is not to say, though, that political correctness about the Treaty is not still deep-seated in the public service and institutions such as schools and universities. Not so long ago, as I recall, Treaty awareness was a prerequisite even for anyone wanting to be a prison warder….

More than the atmosphere has changed in the last decade. Just as European New Zealanders are more frank in the expression of their views, so also Maori and their culture are much more a very visible and acknowledged part of the mainstream of New Zealand life. We cannot object to that. We might worry, though, that Pita Sharples feels free to make such stupid suggestions. After numerous Treaty settlements, Maori are or are becoming a major economic force in many parts of the country. The economic power of these newly-endowed Maori institutions obviously calls forth the respect of politicians and business.

With new riches for Maori come the burdens and preoccupations of property ownership and power ~ questions of governance, decisions on whether and how to invest or spend money, how best to use assets, whether to embrace Western capitalist models or to build or rebuild traditional structures of management and community. Will the self-proclaimed distinct holistic and spiritual Maori world-view, so easy to maintain when it is mere rhetoric, succumb to the temptations of power and money? Will riches corrupt? Will Maori prove in prosperity to be no different from, and no better than, anyone else?

It might seem, anyway, that the crisis has passed. Maori seem more firmly integrated into our economic and cultural life. The occasional adolescent may jostle a Prime Minister, but for the time being, anyway, we do not hear hotheads talking of violence. The only guns are wielded by clowns like Tame Iti. Without widespread protests, the law was changed in 2006 so that no further historical claims for alleged breaches of Treaty principles could be lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal after September 2008, and deadlines have been set ~ which may or may not be met ~ for the settlement of claims. New methods of negotiation are considered for dealing with those. It seems possible to contemplate a future where Treaty claims are a thing of the past, and where we can all settle down to the business of being New Zealanders.

That happy situation is still some time away, though, and in the meantime perils remain. Many of us, growing up in this lucky country in an age of abundance, inevitably have something of the ‘social welfare mentality’, and the Treaty encourages that habit of thought among Maori. Before the 2005 general election I was present at a political meeting where Metiria Turei, the Green Party’s Treaty spokesman, summed it up admirably. I am not making this up; I jotted her words down. ‘Maori want two things,’ she announced; ’they want independence ~ and they want more funding.’ She appeared to notice no contradiction between these two demands. Maori wanted everything, in fact, and at no cost. Behind all Treaty claims lurks an inchoate grudge, a belief that Maori have been wronged and that whatever is done by way of amends will never be enough.

We may settle Treaty claims, but the grudge remains. Maori are over-represented in all our worst statistics ~ crime, poverty, ill-health, family violence, truancy, illiteracy, unemployment….Whatever the reasons for this over-representation may be, it is a fact we have to face. A resentful growing underclass, to a considerable extent racially distinct (Pacific islander as well as Maori), is already a problem. Treaty settlements do not seem to be solving it. Settlements are largely with tribal groupings, and these lost people, the very people most in need of the benefits of settlements, usually have little or no contact with their ancestral tribes.

The world generally is becoming a harder place; our easy-going informal ‘pakeha culture’, as the historian Michael King referred to it, is shrinking before hard economic necessity, and so how will Maori fare? I doubt that hard-working new Asian immigrants to New Zealand will be nearly as sympathetic to Maori claims for special treatment as we have been hitherto. We are at the end of the golden weather. The future will be an age of increasing resource shortages and hardship worldwide, and although New Zealand may be better placed than most other countries, our future too will be one of failing prosperity and comfort. We will not be able to maintain even our present generosity to the unfortunate, and the unfortunate may not take that lying down.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a modest little document which cannot bear all the weight that some would pile upon it. It is not an environmental ‘greenprint’ for sustainability; it does not contain the secret cure for all social problems. We will have problems aplenty in the future, and we will have to deal with them; but by and large, appeals to the Treaty and claims to racial privilege will not be the solution. We actually know the solutions to most social problems ~ they involve things such as education, good families, faithfulness, love, hard work and self-discipline. The Treaty has nothing to say about domestic violence, crime, or environmental degradation. Treatyism diverts us from the real solutions, which involve a cultivation of virtue far more difficult than the cultivation of grudges. A generation ago, when New Zealanders’ understanding of racial and cultural issues was admittedly a little on the shallow side, the Treaty still had the potential to be a document which could inspire and unite us. I wonder if that is possible now. The Treaty has been the instrument of righting some historic wrongs; it has also been for two decades a vehicle for claims of racial privilege and discontent. It has fostered, among some Maori an

d European sympathisers, a very lucrative little industry of vested interests. At the same time it has irritated many good-hearted New Zealanders. No more historic claims may be lodged; but well-meaning judges have informed us that the Treaty is a ‘living document’ always speaking to us, adaptable to every situation, and one which should be interpreted generously and not in any quibbling legalistic spirit. (It was obviously not their own assets that the judges were so casually and high-mindedly giving away.)

The Treaty, then, is still around. It is still capable of becoming a focus for future discontents. It would be good if it were to beckon us towards a harmonious united future, but the gloomier option is just as possible. I hope it will be useful, therefore, to provide you, gentle readers, with some solid information and critical although respectful reflections on Treaty issues. What I offer will not solve the problems we will be facing in the future, but some clearing of the undergrowth may help us to see better and reduce our chances of going astray.