Editorial: Critics need to rethink Treaty's value

Maori were far more populous, and in a sense powerful, than the Pakeha of 1840. Photo / Thinkstock
Maori were far more populous, and in a sense powerful, than the Pakeha of 1840. Photo / Thinkstock

Nations nearly always find their pride in their origins - a migration, a revolution, a war of independence. New Zealand, possibly uniquely in the world, can find it in a treaty. A treaty of equals.

Maori were far more populous, and in a sense powerful, than the Pakeha of 1840. They were so dominant they did not think of themselves as Maori so much as hapu and iwi whose country was rapidly changing.

For 40 or 50 years, a trickle of Europeans had been coming to hunt, trade, preach their religion and ask for land in return for their manufactured goods, such as guns.

Guns had turned tribal conflicts into devastating disruption in the 1820s. The Auckland isthmus, previously full of villages and crops, was abandoned in the face of Ngapuhi raids and by 1840 it had not long been reoccupied by a subtribe of Ngati Whatua whose chief sent a delegation to Waitangi.

Apihai te Kawau sent an invitation to the Governor to establish his capital on the Waitemata. He did it almost certainly for the same reason that so many chiefs who went to Waitangi signed the treaty offered to them this day. A European presence was an investment. It promised trade, education, a higher material living standard, modern law and peace.

It did not mean overwhelming immigration. The chiefs would have known that it was a possibility but such was their weight of numbers in 1840 they would have been confident they could step in before their people, their land and their culture were swamped.

They were wrong.

Today, their descendants have recovered. Maori comprise 14 per cent of the population and rising. The Treaty that was ignored and found moth-eaten in an archive a century later is now a living force in the nation's government, a source of restitution for tribes and cultural recovery.

Its implications, as interpreted by the Waitangi Tribunal and endorsed by our highest courts, require governments to observe a principle of partnership where Maori interests are at stake.

Just as the chiefs of 1840 conceded a great deal from their dominant position, modern governments have been magnanimous too. They could have continued to ignore the Treaty and most voters would not have cared. At any time since the Treaty's revival in the 1970s, one or other of the major parties could have campaigned against it and probably prospered.

Public opinion accepts the Treaty as a contract that was not fully kept and requires restitution, which most people would like to see completed as soon as possible. It is not yet generally accepted as a permanent constitutional agreement.

Power is hard to share. It must have been hard for the chiefs at Waitangi who debated among themselves for a day and night before they came to the Treaty grounds on February 6. Every year since the 1970s, when this became the national day, Maori visitors to Waitangi have had similar debates on the eve of the anniversary and the more headstrong have demonstrated their discontent on the day.

Many deplore this way of observing a national day but they ought to think again. It is the mark of a nation that is trying to live up to a founding ideal that no other nations knows. If we are successful there will come a day when our dual heritage is no longer seen as a threat to either side but part of the identity of every New Zealander.

That will be the day when Maori no longer feel like a dispossessed people struggling on so many social measures. They will feel powerful and proud of the nation we have become.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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