About the Author

Avatar photo

Dr Muriel Newman


Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

11 February 07


A new poll out this week shows that fewer than half of New Zealanders consider the Treaty of Waitangi to be of significance to them. The study by Research New Zealand found that of the 55% of the 500 people surveyed who thought the Treaty had no significance, 27% were Maori and 64% were New Zealand European.

These results are not suprising. The Treaty of Waitangi has become very contentious over the years. While it symbolises the birth of our nation back in 1840, the real meaning of the Treaty has been the subject of intense dispute and debate.

The majority of New Zealanders believe that the Treaty was an agreement whereby Maori chiefs ceded their sovereignty to the Crown and accepted British rule: Article I of the Treaty transferred tribal sovereignty to the Queen of England, Article II established private property rights for all New Zealanders, and Article III offered protection from widespread lawlessness by granting all citizens the rights and privileges of British subjects.

However, on-going disagreements persist regarding the interpretation of the Treaty, particularly with regard to the differences between the Maori version, Te Tiriti O Waitangi, and the English version. In particular, Article II of the Maori version mentions only the possession of land, dwellings and property, while the English version includes forests and fisheries as well.

The authenticity of that English version – which forms the basis of our Treaty laws – has also been questioned. Some claim that it was an early draft of the Treaty, with the final English version, which provided the text for translation into Te Tiriti O Waitangi, having gone missing in 1840. This final version, written in James Busby’s hand and known as the Littlewood Treaty, came to light in 1989 and is now held by Archives New Zealand. It omits the reference to forests and fisheries, and gives equal rights to all New Zealanders with no provision for special customary rights for Maori (to find out more, read the Investigate Magazine article “The End of the Golden Gravy Train” click here to view)

In contrast, a whole industry has been built on a different interpretation of the Treaty based on the concepts of a dual sovereignty partnership between Maori and the Crown, customary rights, and affirmative action for Maori. This interpretation has brought special legislative privileges as well as a flourishing claims settlement process for land, rivers, lakes, forests, fisheries, airwaves, airspace, intellectual property, flora and fauna, to name but a few. (To view details of the claim for all New Zealand’s flora and fauna – WAI 262 – click here)

It is also worth noting that the new Supreme Court is expected to play a significant role in all of this: “part of the reason for the Supreme Court replacing the British Privy Council as the final appeal court is to enable important legal matters, including legal matters relating to the Treaty of Waitangi, to be resolved with an understanding of New Zealand conditions, history and traditions”. (“Sharing a Country” by Catherine Masters, click here to view)

It is little wonder that with such controversy and potential for on-going taxpayers’ liability surrounding new interpretations of the Treaty, as well as with Waitangi Day itself having developed a reputation for protest rather than celebration, more and more New Zealanders are distancing themselves from it all.

At the heart of the controversy over the Treaty is the issue of race: racial clauses, now common in our legislation, give priority and special rights to Maori over health and education funding, community development, business assistance, resource management, local governance, as well as through the whole Waitangi claims process. All in all, this adds up to a massive stream of taxpayers’ funding that is available for those who claim to be Maori – in 2004 the ACT Party Parliamentary Research Unit found that Maori received $7 billion in government benefits every year while contributing only $2 billion in tax. (see )

Dr Elizabeth Rata of the Faculty of Education at Auckland University , this week’s NZCPD Guest Commentator, believes that this politicisation of race is inherently divisive and is now subverting democracy in New Zealand . In a speech to the Skeptics Society last year, she argued that public policy based on ethnicity rather than egalitarianism, which is now deeply woven into our culture through government policies, is undemocratic and racially divisive. Further, she argues that ‘ethnic fundamentalism’ should be challenged, and she questions why race, embodied in biculturalism, has become a primary defining feature of New Zealand society instead of nationalism? (To read the speech, click here )

In an interview with Dr Rata, published in the Herald last year, Carroll du Chateau explored her view that the bicultural Maori-Pakeha movement in New Zealand has been a mistake, that it is subverting democracy not only by erecting ethnic boundaries between Maori and non-Maori, but also by promoting a cultural elite within Maoridom: Many New Zealanders originally supported Maori re-tribalism because they saw it as a means to much greater social justice – and my argument is that, in fact the opposite has happened – that group of poor marginalised Maori is in the same position now.

She commented that within two decades, the primary goal of the academic and political elite who has been driving the movement – to bring activism into government institutions, policies and practices and change things from within – has been achieved: You get inside a system and subvert it. Destroy from within.

But she issued an important warning: There are two sides to culturalism. The small elite group who promoted it and the much larger group who allowed it to happen – and all in the name of social justice. And of course, social justice can’t be found along the path of ethnic division.

The question that each and every New Zealander needs to ask, is whether this movement towards race-based laws, Treaty partnership, as well as the never-ending Watiangi Tribunal settlement process has gone too far? While a time limit of 2008 has now been imposed on the lodging of historical claims, there is still a free-for-all on contemporary claims – see the sidebar for more details on the flora and fauna claim.

If it has all gone too far, then, as a starting point, is it not time to remove one of the power-bases of ethnic division, the Maori seats in Parliament? Twenty years ago, the royal commission on the electoral system recommended that the “temporary” Maori seats should be abolished if the country adopted MMP. They rightly believed that MMP would create a ready opportunity for the democratic representation of interest groups.

Maori responded to calls for the abolition of the Maori seats by saying that the timing of such a change should be up to Maori. Interestingly, in response to the recent Maori electoral option, while 40,000 more Maori of voting age were eligible to go onto the Maori roll, the net increase was only 15,000 indicating that for most of those Maori, their preference was for the general roll.

If the Maori seats were replaced with more general seats, would that not signify a turning point for New Zealand – an end to a future of increasing racial division, and the beginning of a new journey to nationhood?

The poll this week asks: Do you think the timing of the National Party’s plan to abolish the Maori seats in 2014 is about right, too soon, or not soon enough?Take part in poll

Reader’s comments will be posted on the NZCPD Forum page click to view .

To leave a comment:

[Note: the page link will appear in the email]

Enter a message (optional)