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Pamphlet truths spark outrage

A few days ago, I was phoned by a reporter for some organisation called Te Ao Maori News to ask if I knew anything about a pamphlet which had been placed in a letter-box in the Auckland suburb of St Mary’s Bay. The reporter said that the recipient of the pamphlet had been out-raged by the pamphlet because, according to the reporter, it presented “an inaccurate interpretation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and Maori-Crown relations”.

On 4 August, Te Ao Maori News wrote up the story of the pamphlet entitled “Are we being conned by the Treaty industry?”, noting that the publication attempted to “demolish 24 so-called myths including saying the treaty was not a partnership, there is harm in co-governance and that Aotearoa isn’t the Maori name for New Zealand. The booklet claims Maori are not indigenous to Aotearoa and that full sovereignty was ceded to the Crown with the 1840 signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It claims the idea colonization was bad for Maori is a ‘myth’”.

I had nothing to do with the production of this pamphlet but I confess to finding nothing in the least surprising or objectionable in what the article claims the pamphlet asserts.

Did the Treaty create a partnership between Maori tribes and the Crown? Of course not, as people as different as David Lange and Winston Peters have long pointed out. It is constitutionally impossible for the Crown to enter into a partnership with any of its subjects.

Co-governance? If this is intended to mean a governance arrangement which gives equal power to a small minority of part-Maori as to the great majority of New Zealanders, it is of course fundamentally inconsistent with any concept of democracy.

Aotearoa the Maori name for New Zealand? Certainly not in 1840. Indeed, in 1840 Maori tribes had no concept of a nation state and when the English-language draft of the Treaty of Waitangi was translated into te reo Maori the words used for New Zealand were Nu Tirani. The word Aotearoa didn’t appear in writing until much later in the 19th century.

Maori are indigenous to New Zealand? I guess it depends what is meant by indigenous. Its most common usage refers to a people, a plant or other life form which have been in a place since time immemorial. The Australian aborigines are often referred to as indigenous to Australia, correctly in my view: it is estimated that they have lived in Australia for many tens of thousands of years – nobody is quite certain when they arrived. But of course New Zealand Maori themselves refer to their arrival in New Zealand in named canoes a mere a few hundred years before Abel Tasman became the first European to discover New Zealand, and refer to their spirits returning to their ancestral homeland after death. Personally, I accept that the ancestors of modern Maori were the first humans to settle in New Zealand – though that view is not unanimously held – but that certainly doesn’t make them indigenous in the traditional meaning of the word.

Did Maori chiefs cede sovereignty in signing the Treaty? It has become fashionable in the very recent past to assert that they did not, but nobody reading the account of speeches made at the time of the signing in 1840, or at the Kohimarama conference of chiefs in 1860, can be in any doubt that the chiefs knew that they were surrendering to a higher authority. Moreover, for some 180 years the descendants of those chiefs and their subjects have behaved as if sovereignty was surrendered – paying taxes to the elected government, serving in the armed forces, serving in the police, being educated in state schools, being treated in state hospitals, accepting cash benefits from the state, travelling on New Zealand passports, etc. Strange behaviour indeed if sovereignty was not ceded.

And was colonization bad for Maori? There are clearly some New Zealanders who think that it was, but personally I find their arguments entirely unconvincing. Colonisation brought an end to inter-tribal warfare (indeed, that was almost certainly why Maori signed the Treaty), an end to slavery and an end to cannibalism. It brought common law, written language, the wheel, metal tools, and new sources of protein (sheep, cattle and pigs to name just three). Yes, there were mistakes made, and successive New Zealand governments have negotiated compensation for those mistakes. But it would be hard for a disinterested observer to conclude that the arrival of British settlers was, on balance, bad for Maori.

So there was nothing in the report on the pamphlet by Te Ao Maori News which suggested the pamphlet was dangerous or inaccurate. That didn’t stop politicians of various stripes from denouncing it, and the group which had published it.

Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little commented on the group, saying it was made up of “dumb people” while Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi suggested using the publication as toilet paper.

More worrying for those who lean to the right politically, Christopher Luxon of the National Party said that “this anonymous document being circulated is inflammatory. We condemn any organisation or publication that denigrates any group of New Zealanders whether they be Maori or one other of the 200 plus ethnicities represented here in New Zealand”. One must hope that he was reacting to a reporter’s question without actually seeing the offending document because there is nothing in the report on the pamphlet which is inflammatory or in any way denigrates anybody.

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