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NZ at Treaty Crossroads: Multi-tribal governance or equality for all?

In brief
  • Te Pati Māori (TPM) advocates for Māori sovereignty, sparking controversy.
  • The historical debate over the Treaty is as old as the Treaty.
  • Regardless of unsolvable historical interpretations, what of New Zealand’s future direction? 
  • Equal rights for all or rights determined along ethnic and racial lines?

Te Pati Māori says they’re ready to dig in on this

TPM’s December 1 statement on parliamentary allegiance to the Crown, followed by its day of protest over “policies” of the new government, illustrate deeply-held views of their vision for NZ’s future. But is it a vision their tīpuna (ancestors) shared?

In a nutshell, TPM is endorsing three basic principles: that each Māori iwi is a sovereign in its own right, co-equal to the Crown; that each iwi should have administrative responsibility for its rohe (catchment area); and that Te Tiriti promised the Maori co-governance of New Zealand which may involve positive discrimination over the needs of all other citizens.

It’s become a popular “creation myth” because it has been taught to many students, who are now advancing in their careers. The last government, particularly, adopted it in the public service. Many mainstream media espouse it as well and seem to consider it their duty to convince the population.

But it is an argument only, which will create winners and losers and overlooks inconvenient facts. 

Conference of Māori chiefs at Kohimarama, Auckland 1860 

Twenty years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi was the conference of Māori chiefs at Kohimarama, Auckland in 1860. It was a convening of 112 chiefs from around New Zealand, mainly from the North Island. The conference was at the behest of then-Governor Browne.

Many of the chiefs had been present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi two decades prior. At that conference, they openly discussed British sovereignty. The minutes of the conference are a matter of the public record.

NZ Treaty Te Pati Māori (TPM) Advocacy
Even in the 1860s, some officials, like Donald McLean couldn’t believe the signers of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 didn’t know what they were agreeing to, 
but nonetheless encouraged debate: “You observe that the Governor requests you to confer with him frankly and without reserve,” he told the Chiefs at 
Kohimarama in 1860.

In those minutes you will read many speeches endorsing the unification of Māori and Pakeha under the British legal system, with the abandonment of tikanga. One of the most telling is from the Arawa tribe, which never signed the Treaty but seemingly ceded their sovereignty regardless. Their chief described how he chose the courts, not utu, when a relative was murdered:

“Had I then followed Maori customs many lives would have perished. I left it to the Queen’s law and I saw good. With my understanding I discovered the evil of my heart, and abandoned it. I now give my adherence to the Queen. I now give my adherence to the one law. Let there be only one law for the Arawa people, that our way may be clear. If evil should appear in any place, let the law dispose of it.”

Can this ever be put to bed?

Over 150 years have passed since the Conference of Kohimarama and nearly two centuries since the Treaty signing. Finding a resolution remains elusive. Why will one ever be found, unless something brings it to a decisive head? As it is, it pays Māori activists to keep arguing, often with government funding (For some background on the sovereignty debate, read about Dr Lawrie Knight’s work here).

What’s perhaps more pertinent to the nation today is to ask what kind of country do the citizens want? One that holds everyone equal before the law or one that determines rights along ethnic and racial lines? It seems very related to the debate over equal opportunity versus equality of outcomes

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