On 6 February 1840, amidst conflict between the sovereign Maori peoples and British people on Maori land despite trade transactions and concerns that the French were seeking to expand into New Zealand, the British and 540 Māori rangatira (chiefs) struck an accord – a treaty – and signed it in an attempt to create unity.
The Treaty of Waitangi was named after the location it was signed, and February 6 now marks the signing of the Treaty and is a New Zealand national holiday.
Written in Maori and English and containing three articles, the Treaty is a set of broad principles in which the Maori and British founded a nation state and agreed to build a government in New Zealand. The Treaty itself does not form part of New Zealand domestic law, except where it is inserted into specific legislation, and is instead looked at as a set of principles rather than an agreement, despite being the founding agreement of the New Zealand nation state.
History tells us, however, that there was not a meeting of the minds in forming this agreement. The English version of the Treaty stipulates that the Maori people ceded sovereignty, gave the Crown exclusive rights to buy land that the Maori people wished to sell and in return are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their traditional lands, forests, fisheries and possessions and granted all the rights and privileges as British subjects.
The Maori version contains nuanced differences that carry a significant meaning, for example, in the Maori version sovereignty is replaced by ‘kawanatanga’ which means governance. It has been argued that the Maori believed they remained a sovereign people free to handle their own affairs but gave up governing the lands. The Maori version also guaranteed full authority over ‘taonga’ which means treasures that may be intangible.
The British encroached upon the Maori understood terms of the Treaty and this led to countless disputes, particularly in the 1970’s when the Maori political movement was gaining traction and increasing its push to enforce the Treaty.
As a result of the Maori push, the Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 to consider claims made by individuals or groups and upon considering the evidence issues a report with recommendations. The Office of Treaty Settlements, established at the same time as the Tribunal, negotiates with the claimants on behalf of the Crown. Since establishment, there have been over 2,000 claims registered, giving an indication of the level of dispute between the Maori people and the New Zealand government.
A further area of dispute is the fact that claims negotiated by the Crown are settled on a large group scale and once settlement legislation is enacted, there are no further rights for that group to make any historical claims which completely ignores any (sub-tribe) and whanau (extended family) claims.
The Treaty of Waitangi is often reflected upon by Maori people on Waitangi Day as many Maori consider that the ‘spirit of the treaty’ has not been honoured. In Australia, Indigenous people do not have a treaty but the Waitangi example demonstrates the importance of linguistic nuances, ensuring that both parties understand exactly what is being agreed, neither party has an unfair advantage to the other when enforcing the terms of a treaty and the necessity of prescribed set of consequences for breach of terms of any Treaty.
Today we can reflect on the good intentions of the Maori people who signed the Treaty of Waitangi and honour the Maori people, our brothers and sisters of New Zealand, by shining a light on the injustice of the Maori people having to fight to uphold the Treaty.