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Treaty land issues

In brief: 

  • Determining whether or how much Māori were shorted is very much a hole without a bottom.
  • There’s always room to argue about a document like the Treaty. The “right” answer can change with the times and the person deciding.
  • Ultimately, the Government decides how the Treaty should be applied, so voters should know the parties’ positions and vote accordingly.

The key word is “contentious” 

There are many contentious aspects of The Treaty of Waitangi, but let’s look briefly at some points in considering just one: What to consider when deciding how much to compensate Māori for alleged improper historical loss of land? 

Let’s get an idea of the background

Māori had no land titles registry and property was owned communally. Māori collectively owned the land before the Treaty and continued to do so after the Treaty, apart from land they sold. However, a lot of questionable deals took place both before and after the Treaty. 

Some efforts to clarify the situation included The New Zealand Land Commission 1841-44, which determined there were concerns with the majority of sales as to whether the Māori sellers had the right to sell. The Māori Land Court, established in 1865, and the Native Lands Act 1892, were in part to provide some sort of checkpoint against Māori being shortchanged. 

Attempts have been ongoing through the Waitangi Tribunal 1975 to correct perceived historic wrongdoings over land claims. 

Just because Māori sold land at prices that look cheap today, does that make it an obvious wrong?

It’s difficult determining today how land should have been valued in the 1800s. How do you go back more than a century and correct for transactions between willing buyers and sellers? Should Māori at the time have been treated as unable to deal with their own affairs? 

Inter-tribal warfare was also a major issue. Māori recognized as owners at a point in time may have thought it wise to sell while in that position. 

Fighting the Government can end badly

The Crown confiscated land after armed uprisings in the decades after the Treaty was signed. On the one hand, Māori argue the Crown were trying to give themselves rights they didn’t have. On the other, the Crown argued certain iwi breached the Treaty, and therefore the Crown was entitled to take land as reparations. More than 160 years later, some think the iwi should be compensated. 

Subsidies and reductions 

Some consider it relevant to land settlements that Māori have been given reductions (essentially a subsidy) over the decades on property taxes. This is not discussed much.

What should voters do? 

Few appreciate the inherent subjectivity in interpreting the Treaty. Often, people are discouraged from having opinions not produced by experts. But, while an “expert” may have read extensively, in this sort of social science they are essentially individuals, with leanings, trying to persuade others towards their interpretation. 

For example, the court in the Wi Parata case in 1877 was of the opinion the Treaty had no continuing legal effect. This became the law until 1975, when the government of the day voted to give the Treaty formal legal status. The 180 degree turn occurred because there was, by then, sufficient change in opinion. 

Ultimately, voters should understand each political party’s position on this and other Treaty questions, and vote accordingly. Since Parliament is supreme in the NZ system, it’s ultimately the Government that determines the continuing meaning of the Treaty.

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