Historians and prophets, by the nature of their vocations, tend to look in opposite directions. But if what's past is prologue, then historical developments can give us clues as to how the future might unfold.

This is certainly the case with the Treaty of Waitangi, which - however much we might begrudge the fact - could be on a trajectory towards diminished relevance for some sectors in society.

The Treaty was devised principally to enable Britain to extend its jurisdiction to its subjects living in New Zealand, for which Maori consent was required.

There was no expectation by colonial officials that its tenure would be interminable. Such agreements typically dissolved into history once their objectives had been met, which is what had happened with practically all the other colonial treaties of the era.


Who now even remembers, let alone evokes, the Cession by Soombia Soosoos and Tura, the Itsekiri Protectorate Treaty, or the British-Sherbo Agreement?

After Governor FitzRoy's recall in 1845, the Treaty of Waitangi fell into the equivalent of a constitutional coma, only to be slowly awakened during the early 1970s by a committed, articulate, and historically informed group of activists who were intent on its promises being honoured and its breaches remedied.

Although there were challenges in trying to revive a colonial-era agreement in a post-colonial country, it grew in prominence in New Zealand's legislation, race relations, constitutional deliberations and even national identity - portrayed by some of its more impassioned advocates as a sacred document.

However, while the Treaty's status now seems like a permanent fixture in our national life, and is maybe even taken for granted, the country is quietly undergoing a transition towards a post-Treaty era. Like a post-industrial society, the notion of post-Treaty New Zealand does not imply no Treaty at all. Rather, it suggests that the role the Treaty will play in society in the future will be modified and potentially reduced in some areas.

This trend has been evident since the 2000s, following the period of "peak Treaty", characterised by large-scale Treaty settlements and Treaty issues often appearing at the forefront of political debate.

The Treaty of Waitangi will no doubt continue to feature in the public realm, but is it even now regarded as a central organising principle of the nation? In an ever more culturally-diverse, complex, and globalised society, the much simpler binary relationship of Maori and Pakeha that existed in 1840 sometimes seems like an odd fit with modern New Zealand.

Since the 1970s, the response to this has been to stretch the limits of the definition and application of the Treaty, to the point where it has almost become all things to all people. The pace of social and political evolution has outstripped the ability of the Treaty to accommodate many of these developments.

Even among some Maori communities which were once ardent advocates of the Treaty, things have changed. The Treaty itself may remain sacrosanct, but in some cases, settlements have created and enriched tribal corporate monoliths, with little wealth trickling down to the members of those hapu and iwi. And with those settlements being full and final, any appeal to the Treaty for redress will be met with stony silence.


At the same time, the Crown is on the verge of settling the last batch of the major historical claims. Its relationship with hapu and iwi will thereafter be reduced.

Constitutionally, we may wish to continue anchoring our nation to this colonial-era agreement for fear that we may somehow drift into dangerous waters without it. Yet, as every other nation in the world which had a colonial treaty with Britain has discovered, the post-treaty era is an inevitability.

But just before the Treaty-haters begin to celebrate, the post-Treaty era may also usher in more assertive forms of Maori sovereignty. Some of the groundwork for this has already been laid, and co-management of Crown assets by hapu and iwi, coupled with these groups exercising greater autonomy in the areas of health, justice, and education are the likely fruits of this development.

Professor Paul Moon lectures in history at AUT University.