The nature of political power, Paul Spoonley

The Treaty Now
William Renwick,
GP Books, Wellington, 1990, $24.95

Mana Tiriti: The Art of Protest and Partnership
Haeta, Project Waitangi and City Art Gallery, Wellington City Council,
Daphne Brasell Associates Press, Wellington, 1991, $24.95

The Treaty Now examines the development of the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1980s, the legal debates and judicial decisions which occurred and the impact of these upon public debate and the understanding of Treaty issues. The implications for resources such as forests, coal and notably fisheries are discussed, and Renwick spends the latter half of the book trying to tease out the constitutional and other political implications of these events. His own conclusions are clear, if at times understated. The current parliamentary system in New Zealand is an ‘expression of majority power’ which does not ‘champion … the rights of minorities’. There is a need to change the role of central government and to acknowledge rangatiratanga.

Without wishing to be disparaging, this is all good liberal stuff. What he might not have been able to foresee, given when the book was written, was the end of the ‘liberal hour’ on such matters. I would date this from mid-1989 when the government sought to establish the ‘principles’ of the Treaty as they saw them. The nervousness about the Treaty was patently obvious in the 1990 election campaign and has been replaced by an almost complete lack of interest with the new National Government.

Many of the policies and laws which provided a liberal and broadly sympathetic environment for Maori land and other claims in the late 1980s have now either disappeared or have been neutralised in some way. The value of the book is that it describes a specific and unique period, and Renwick raises important questions about the nature and exercise of political power in New Zealand. His opinions are scarcely radical ones, and his understanding of rangatiratanga is limited, as Moana Jackson has pointed out. Some matters are explained well although there must be a question mark over other aspects, especially the portrayal of Maori concerns.

The book is not without its strength, notably a detailed exploration of the legal and constitutional issues surrounding the Treaty in the late 1980s, but Renwick is not the only author to have dissected these. From a Pakeha perspective, Paul Temm’s book has both the advantage and disadvantage of being tightly focused on the Waitangi Tribunal. Jane Kelsey offers a more critical analysis than either Temm or Renwick. If money and constitution allow for it, the best strategy might be to read all three.

By way of contrast, Mana Tiriti is an eclectic and exciting array of viewpoints and artwork on the Treaty. It is impossible to reflect the vibrancy and variety of the book in a review such as this. It derives from a sesquicentennial exhibition jointly arranged by Haeta, a Wellington-based Maori women’s art collective, Project Waitangi and the Wellington City Art Gallery. It had two aspects: Artwork was assembled and displayed, followed by a series of speakers who showed that Mana Tiriti required a degree of partnership, not the least of which was the handing over of curatorial power – it was described as a model of partnership.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is titled ‘150 Years of Dirty Laundry’, the second concerns issues of partnership and biculturalism while the third is given over to the three groups who were responsible for the exhibition. Each contains written contributions from forum speakers interspersed with pictures of the artwork, accompanied by explanations from the artists. Throughout contributors question and criticise but they also offer guidance. The paintings leave little unsaid. They give the protest theme of the book a particular power and lift the printed word. I have few problems with the polemical nature of many of the speakers’ written pieces and my only frustration is with their brevity. For example, Tony Simpson questions some commonly held views about our history. Was Aotearoa really any more lawless prior to 1840 than most European cities? But there is not room to explore this contention in any detail.

I would like to know what Robert Taylor means when he talks of moving from an imperial fringe to post-colonial regionalism and international modernism. How does Emele Duituturaga specifically acknowledge Maori as tangata whenua? This is not so much a criticism of the speakers/writers as a comment on the book’s format. Perhaps it succeeds if it does tantalise and invite the reader to explore further. Maybe it should not offer too many answers (if they exist).

I enjoyed Mana Tiriti although, as the remarks reprinted from the visitors’ book demonstrate, some will feel threatened by the active exploration of sensitive issues. Comments which are part of Barbara Strathdee’s painting, ‘We Must Honour’ provide an appropriate end:

A: What a nice place. I want to live here.

B: Will we need to use force, do you think?

C: No, we can probably make a treaty.

D: All, yes, but I want to be in charge.


Paul Spoonley is a senior lecturer in sociology at Massey University.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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