Brian McDonnell: Treaty exaltation has gone too far

Waka ceremony and haka for Waitangi Day. Photo / Natalie Slade
Waka ceremony and haka for Waitangi Day. Photo / Natalie Slade

Brian McDonnell, senior lecturer of film studies at Massey University in Auckland, responds to Tariana Turia's letter to the country.

Tariana Turia's open letter gives the impression that there is a general consensus of opinion among Maori and right-thinking Pakeha that separate power structures and the expansion of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi provisions into a permanent power partnership between Maori and "the rest" are the best ways forward for the benefit of New Zealand in general and for Maori in particular.

I believe this is actually not the case by any means. Apart from large sections of the Pakeha population who view such trends with concern, there are a number of Maori people whose agendas vary from this more extreme line. They might argue that policies begun with the best of intentions can actually end up being counter-productive.

Ms Turia says section nine of the 1986 State-Owned Enterprise Act created a "pathway to nationhood", but that pathway was already well established, built from a thousand different components, historical events large and small. If section nine were changed by Parliament, that would be just another step in the constantly shifting pathway. She claims that one sentence of law formed a "prescription for a relationship which is central to our constitution", that it is an "exquisite blueprint for a nation in which kawanatanga and rangatiratanga sit alongside each other".

I agree that it is easy and understandable for members of any minority to feel vulnerable, defensive and even angry. However, instead of being seen as an object of historical study or as a source document for assisting contemporary formulations of ethnic relations, the Treaty has instead in recent decades been raised to an altogether higher status by some Maori activists and Pakeha sympathisers whom I (only semi-facetiously) term as "Treatifarians".

These people would like it to be seen virtually as a sacred text and adopted unmodified as the pre-eminent foundation document of our nation: a compendium of Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Treatifarians approach the Treaty as Holy Writ to be subjected to exegesis by a high priesthood.

The Treaty, they assert, can help "unwrite" subsequent history and reinstate Maori back to the level of equality of power enjoyed in 1840. This project creates a redemptive history in which the elevated Treaty performs an almost messianic function: To save the country's present-day population from the wrongs of its colonial past. Such wrongs are inarguably very real, especially in the loss of land, and I am all for specific cases being addressed fairly. But the process must not resemble a cargo cult.

One alternative view to this, conveyed somewhat intemperately by Paul Holmes in his recent Herald column, sees a need for Maori people to take more personal responsibility for their own present situation, and for improving the lot of themselves and their children. This involves Maori people putting the distant past behind them, clearing up genuine grievances, but eventually getting beyond grievance mode. It asks for the reality of the irreversible blending of ethnic groups to be acknowledged, instead of perpetuating the illogical and unhelpful ethnic essentialism which the Treaty as commonly formulated represents.

The two groups that met at Waitangi in 1840 no longer are separate. After 172 years of change, intermarriage, admixtures, merging, and the continual addition of new elements, there are no longer in New Zealand's population two clear partners to the Treaty.

There are hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who blend a Maori ethnicity with something different: European, Asian, Pasifika. Ms Turia is one of them, as am I. When there is intermarriage, it is a bridge between ethnic groups, not a process in which one identity is sucked and absorbed into the other until it disappears.

People of goodwill are at the very least bemused by this continuing chain of events.

Even sympathetic, liberal and moderate people are getting fed up and do not want this to indefinitely be the tenor of New Zealand life.

We are at a risky time in our nationhood. We are like a boat being rowed by people looking fixedly towards the past. We need someone looking ahead to steer us where we need to go, not on to the rocks. The complex modern world demands ongoing and fluid cultural adaptability. Maori culture, like any other, has to adapt and develop rather than look backward to a romanticised past. It can be argued that the cry to "honour the Treaty" has become inadequate for the real task of improving Maori standards of living.

A really troubling shift of argument exemplified in Ms Turia's letter has been from the actual wording of the Treaty to vaporous "principles" of the Treaty which she confidently lists as being "partnership, protection and participation". What exactly does "partnership" signify in this context? Who has the right to say what the Treaty means constitutionally? Unelected judges? The grandees of prosperous law firms? The Waitangi Tribunal? Powerful iwi leadership?

Her kind of exaltation of the Treaty of Waitangi has gone too far. It is time for this debate to be widened, and for ordinary New Zealanders who feel railroaded by more strident voices to say whoa, taihoa. The Waitangi Express should have the brakes of thoroughgoing debate applied to slow its headlong rush into a possibly divisive future.

With the greatest of respect, Ms Turia, your letter's emotive enthusiasms should be tempered by clear political and democratic realities.

In the final analysis, it is what the majority of people in New Zealand will accept, not the statements of judges or the battlecry of lawyers and politicians that will carry the day.

Dr Brian McDonnell is of Irish, Maori (Tuhoe) and French descent. He is a senior lecturer of film studies at Massey University in Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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