Editorial: Time to finish work begun at Treaty table

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This year's Waitangi Day celebrations may be haunted somewhat by the dispute within the Maori Party between Hone Harawira and his colleagues. Photo / Northern Advocate
This year's Waitangi Day celebrations may be haunted somewhat by the dispute within the Maori Party between Hone Harawira and his colleagues. Photo / Northern Advocate

Waitangi was just the first place where Maori chiefs accepted the Treaty. From there, Captain Hobson took his offer to a larger gathering at Mangungu on the Hokianga where 2500 Maori walked to the event and 70 chiefs signed.

Why? Mita Harris, a descendant of some of them, explained the reason simply last week for a Herald on Sunday item about the commemoration of the Hokianga signing next Saturday.

"These were times of turmoil," she said, "with traders, brigands and missionaries all influencing Maori who felt they were losing their land, power and the life they knew. Their world was changing fast and it was not easy to see a way forward, so they gathered here to ... agree to a treaty that would protect them."

Waitangi Day is an annual reminder of that understanding. The chiefs were not oblivious to the risks and significance of the document they were signing.

Their people still far outnumbered the few thousand Europeans in the country but ships had been trading with them for several decades and some Maori had travelled. The world whether they liked it or not could not be held at bay, so they did a deal with the strongest imperial power of the day.

The chiefs hoped it would protect their land, power and the life they knew. They were to be disappointed. The Treaty proved incapable of constraining settler government, immigration and law that individualised land ownership. It had no constitutional force.

Today it does. Not much of its force is written in law but that goes for most of the constitutional understandings that constrain the power of governments in the British tradition.

This year the country will begin a constitutional discussion arising from the Maori Party's agreement with the National Government. The status of the Treaty and the wisdom of incorporating it in a written constitution will be central issues.

The exercise is expected to run for three years and the way it is conducted may be as significant as any result. It will be jointly overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples and the donkey work will be done by an advisory panel yet to be named, but it will have a Maori co-chairman. The intention is that Maori will have an equal voice, not a minority view.

The annual celebration at Waitangi usually challenges hopes of reconciliation and progress. This year proceedings may be haunted somewhat by the dispute within the Maori Party between the Tai Tokerau MP, Hone Harawira, and his colleagues.

The partnership with National has not achieved nearly enough for Maori in his view, and he regards much of the Government's social and economic policies to be damaging to his people.

Presumably he would prefer the Maori Party to align with Labour, though by his own admission he still thinks of himself primarily as an "activist" rather than a participant in decisions.

Maori in general have made more political progress than Mr Harawira. They have a party with a distinct place in the national power structure and it stands to be in a more pivotal position if it does not lose seats this year.

In fact, the opportunities it has may exceed its capacity to take advantage of them. It needs to develop its own forums for policy proposals and discussion.

Progress in the nation's central social partnership does not come in sudden breakthroughs or even visible steps. It is a gradual acceptance that a postcolonial state cannot be governed simply by majority rule. Descendants of the people whose chiefs trusted the colonisers to protect them are reclaiming their rightful place here.

- NZ Herald

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