Posted on December 6, 2023

Fears for Māori Rights as New Zealand Government Reviews Treaty

Michelle Duff, The Guardian, December 1, 2023

More than 180 years after Māori leaders gathered near the banks of the Waitangi River to sign the treaty that became New Zealand’s founding document, their descendants fear that the rights afforded to them in the agreement may be under attack.

The country’s new coalition government, sworn in this week, has said it will review the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, or Treaty of Waitangi, which upholds Māori rights, including the right to autonomy.

“For us, this is a modern-day confiscation of our treaty rights, hard-earned and fought for by our predecessors,” says Tukoroirangi Morgan, hundreds of whose ancestors were killed by British troops in the invasion of the Waikato in the 1860s.

The government – led by National’s Christopher Luxon and with the populist New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, and Act party libertarian David Seymour sharing the deputy prime minister role – has announced at least a dozen policies that provide for Māori will be repealed or reviewed. This includes rolling back initiatives designed to improve Māori health outcomes, stopping “race-based” policies, and minimising Māori language use in the public service.

It plans to scrap the Māori Health Authority, Te Aka Whai Ora, set up to reverse negative Māori health outcomes, and repeal legislation designed to prevent the removal of Māori children from their families.

Announcing the changes on Friday, Luxon, the prime minister, said voters wanted services provided on the basis of need, not race, and he was “strengthening democracy” for all New Zealanders. He told the Post newspaper: “There are some things there that we just need a bit of rebalancing and a bit of clarity.”

Critics say the moves are an affront to four decades of legislative decisions which form the basis of the modern interpretation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Māori leaders and law experts say the government is likely to face legal challenges over the repeal of some legislation.

Morgan, who is Waikato-Tainui tribal leader and a former New Zealand First MP, describes the policies as “anti-Māori”.

“Part of our nation is under major attack, and all of the gains that have come as a result of activism in the last 50 years,” he says.

Seymour pushes for ‘critical debate’

Luxon has pledged with New Zealand First to review all mentions of the treaty principles in existing legislation and repeal or amend these. The Act leader, Seymour, campaigned to end co-governance and “division by race”, and wanted a referendum on the treaty. He has described co-governance, or the crown making decisions in partnership with Māori in line with Te Tiriti, as “dismantling democracy”.

Luxon, who in November told Radio New Zealand a referendum would be “divisive and unhelpful”, stopped short of agreeing to this – but the coalition will support Act’s treaty principles bill, which seeks to replace current meanings with its own interpretations, to select committee. This would mean a public debate, and the possibility of a referendum.

The Act leader told Newshub getting the bill to a first reading was “tremendous progress” and positive for the nation.

“It’s all been decided in backrooms and in the courts; the Waitangi Tribunal and the public service … it’s an absolutely critical debate about what our founding document means to us in modern times that has to happen.”

The treaty is an agreement reached in 1840 between the British and Māori. While it is not a legal document, it forms New Zealand’s constitution and its principles – which include the right of Māori to self-determination, or tino rangatiratanga, and the protection of Māori interests – are woven into legislation. This began in the 1970s with the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, a commission of inquiry that investigates treaty breaches by the crown.

A Human Rights Commission survey last week found over half of New Zealanders think Te Tiriti applies to everyone in the country, and 80% want respectful discussion of racial issues.

The Māori lawyer and independence advocate Annette Sykes says the moves are an overreach by the crown. “What is the psyche behind undermining these things? This is a declaration of war into the rights and interests of Māori. It is also an attack on the essence of our nation.”

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer expects backlash to the government’s policies around Te Tiriti, especially among younger people. Her party gained six seats in the 2023 election, four more than in 2020 and the party’s best election result ever.

“The question is, do they really think that Māori would be silenced? And that they would have the ability to silence us?” she says.

Te Pāti Māori are now opposing the oath every MP has to make to the king to be sworn into parliament next week, saying it is not an equal partnership as it does not mention Te Tiriti.

Tackling inequality

Softening provisions that provide for self-determination and protect Māori rights could deepen existing inequalities.

New Zealand has one of the least equal education systems in the developed world. Māori children are five times more likely to be in state care, and 67% of female prisoners are Māori. International evidence shows self-determination can reverse these outcomes, says the University of Auckland professor Claire Charters.

“You can’t just take the simplified approach that by treating people exactly the same you’re going to achieve equality. You’re not. This effectively just prioritises those who have power,” says Charters, who is also the Indigenous rights leader for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

There are plans to “restore balance” to the country’s new history curriculum, which Act policy says is divisive. The curriculum, launched in 2022 under the previous government, made learning about Te Tiriti and the New Zealand Wars compulsory.

Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington professor of Māori education Joanna Kidman fears attempts to rewrite history.

“It looks like they want a different kind of society and in order to do that they have to destroy the foundation of the society we live in, which is Te Tiriti. There is this massive unravelling.”