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In the lead-up to Waitangi Day, Paul Moon looks at the state of the Treaty in the 21st century.

Four sentences. That's it. The Treaty of Waitangi comprises a preamble and three articles, each of which is just one sentence long.

Admittedly, these sentences are fulsome and ponderous - probably because the authors, William Hobson and James Busby, thought they would try to mimic the writing of lawyers when they put quill to paper in the first few days of February 1840 to draft what was about to become the Treaty of Waitangi.

Although we cannot know for certain, it is reasonable to assume that before leaving Sydney for the Bay of Islands in January 1840, a local official pressed into Hobson's hands a few samples of existing treaties to help him with the constitutional task ahead of him.

Having left school before the age of 10, perhaps they thought that this soon-to-be governor could do with all the assistance he could get.

The result of a few days spent drafting the agreement by Hobson and Busby (and possibly others) was that New Zealand ended up with a Treaty that contains passages from the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, the 1825 British Sherbo Agreement and the 1826 Treaty between Britain and Soombia Soosoos, among others.

The outcome was inevitably a patchwork effort, with its stitching made all the more strained by the modest abilities of its authors, the haste at which they prepared the Treaty's text and the dubious nature of its translation by the missionary Henry Williams.

Yet, for all its evident shortcomings, there cannot be many other four-sentence documents in the world that have generated scores of books and innumerable articles and speeches, and that have shaped national politics and race relations as the Treaty of Waitangi has in New Zealand.

Ironically, the further away we move in time from when the Treaty was signed, the more New Zealand's status as a nation state seems to hinge on its clumsy clauses.

Sociologists might be able to read into this national reluctance to part with the Treaty as some deep-seated trait New Zealanders possess - perhaps a sort of security blanket that over time has become too familiar and comfortable to discard, despite its evident defects.

Others might see this as a national failing - a refusal to face the fact that New Zealand as a nation-state was instituted on the basis of a document that outwardly appears terminally flawed, and that from some angles looks as though it has endured well beyond its useful life. However, if we zoom out from narrow academic or constitutional analyses, there is another dimension to the Treaty - one analogous to a marriage - that casts the agreement in a more refreshing light. There is no doubt that the relationship 170 years later has evolved almost out of all recognition from its form in 1840 - maybe the same can be said of most decades-long marriages. Would any bride or groom be able to predict, on their wedding day, the character of their relationship in the years to come?

It is improbable, and yet many stick with their unions, despite occasional harsh words, difficult periods and all the other pressures agitating to separate them. Recalling those vows made between chiefs and the Crown at Waitangi and elsewhere 170 years ago is more than just a nostalgic homage or an exercise in faux patriotism. It is a reminder of the terms of a union between two sovereign peoples that is unique in modern history.

New Zealanders can look on their Treaty now with some pride, though not because it has been an unequivocally happy liaison. We cannot avert our gaze from some terrible episodes during the tenure of this union and pretend they never happened.

However, the sense of a shared experience in what will be two centuries counts for something. The nation has already demonstrated its ability to confront some of the transgressions of the past, and when necessary, apologies have been expressed, and restitution (of sorts) made.

Waitangi Day itself, though, is still an annual rite that has yet to fully shake off political tampering and be able to transcend something as petty as whether or not the prime minster of the day will attend the location where the agreement was first signed. It ought to be bigger than any individual, and if current momentum is anything to go by, it soon will. Maybe future historians will look on the first decade of the 21st century as a watershed in the saga of the Treaty.

What started as a cession of sovereignty in 1840, then lapsed from government attention for more than a century, to emerge in the 1970s as a source of rights and a cause for protest, might now be entering a new phase - the Treaty not as leverage for claims, but as a basis for a fruitful constitutional arrangement. It is still early days in this new era, but given the developments of the past 10 years there is at least cause for optimism.

* Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.