History, processes and principles, Bronwyn Dalley

The Waitangi Tribunal/Te Roopu Whakamana i te Tiriti o Waitangi
ed Janine Hayward and Nicola R Wheen
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1877242322

State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900–1950
Richard S Hill
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734778

Thirty years is an eon in politics. Rewind to 1975 and the passage of the Treaty of Waitangi Bill through Parliament, discussed in the opening chapter to The Waitangi Tribunal/Te Roopu Whakamana i  te Tiriti o Waitangi. The Bill’s sponsor, Labour Minister of Maori Affairs Matiu Rata, saw its importance for Maori and Pakeha. It was a “milestone of social and political achievement”, he noted; for most politicians, the Bill raised barely a flicker of interest. The Treaty of Waitangi Act led to the establishment, on October 10 1975, of the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission of inquiry to receive and report on claims alleging contemporary breaches of the Treaty by the Crown.

It all seemed harmless enough. National’s Venn Young even considered that “The tribunal’s responsibilities appear minimal”. Fast-forward three decades, and that lack of debate surrounding the formation of the tribunal appears startling. We are so used to controversy about this key institution in modern New Zealand society and politics that it’s hard to imagine it slipping quietly into being.

Now politicians miss neither the importance nor the implications of the tribunal and its work. The extent of its powers – actual or assumed – and the Treaty claims settlement process of which it is part can be easy targets for those eager to curry favour with middle, Pakeha New Zealand. Within the last decade or so there have been fiscal envelopes on the amount of money available for Treaty settlements, and suggestions of various “use-by” dates by when all historical claims – within the Tribunal’s purview since 1985 – should be lodged or settled; the 2005 election continued a trend of spotlighting the role of the Tribunal, and wrapping up the settlement process.

There is a fair degree of misunderstanding about the role of the Tribunal. Trying to better inform New Zealanders about it is a central aim of The Waitangi Tribunal/Te Roopu Whakamana i te Tiriti o Waitangi. Its 15 chapters, all written by well-known figures in the claims world of scholarship and hearings, are grouped into three parts. Essays on history, processes and principles occupy the first, taking us through the establishment of the Tribunal and its procedures, discussing the type of evidence presented, how the Tribunal operates, and how it has changed over time. These are mostly thoughtful pieces that explain the powers the Tribunal does – and does not – have. Other players in the settlement process hover at the margins, and a fuller discussion of the Office of Treaty Settlements and the Crown Law Office would have helped those without insider knowledge to place the Tribunal in the context of its own world more clearly.

But these chapters show well the complexity of the Tribunal’s work – as Richard Boast explains, “in part a ‘Maori’ process” but also a judicial body which is “common law to the core” – and the issue, explored by Grant Phillipson, of what constitutes historical evidence when “viewed and interpreted through a Treaty lens”. So often, as these and subsequent chapters note, the Tribunal has come to be a place where Maori interpretations of events and issues are recorded and reported.

This part is a good context for the second, where the various types of the Tribunal’s 80-odd reports (land, fisheries, environmental, commercial) and recommendations or remedies are discussed. Tom Bennion’s chapter provides, in itself, a concise history of the changing philosophy of the Tribunal viewed through its land reports. But while some may assume questions of land loss to head the list of issues addressed by the Tribunal, it is environmental management issues that have dominated. Differing cultural philosophies of resource management partly account for this, but as Nicola Wheen and Jacinta Ruru point out, Maori seemed to have few other places to go; the Tribunal recognised issues that the Planning Tribunal and its predecessors should have but didn’t.

The final part of the collection is more of a mix and match. Two writers look at claims processes elsewhere, and Evan Poata-Smith considers questions of Maori identity through the wider Treaty claims process. His is an interesting – some may say controversial – take on the type of Maori history relayed through the Tribunal and settlement process more generally. The system may be a genuine attempt to redress historical grievances, he notes, but it has been done by smoothing over the complexities of Maori social and political organisation. The last two chapters, by Donna Hall and Andrew Sharp respectively, posit interesting trajectories of the Tribunal, considering what it could come to be in a future – maybe closer than we think – free of the type of work that occupies it now.

In the introduction to the 1992 edition of The Oxford History of New Zealand Geoffrey Rice noted that since the first edition of 11 years before, a “remarkable expansion” of writing on Maori history had been the most significant development in historical scholarship in this country. In his view, an “anxiety” over the outcome of claims before the Tribunal partly accounted for this, but the work of the Tribunal itself also generated much new work in the area of Maori history. The Treaty has certainly taken its place in recent historiography, and what used once to be called “race relations” history became popular as a research topic.

Studies of the Tribunal itself, though, are only recently being “mainstreamed”, moving from the pages of the New Zealand Journal of History or law reviews into general studies. As The Waitangi Tribunal shows, historians and other scholars working in the claims process are active (and adept at producing work to deadlines from which many of us would flee). Yet the substantial body of work from the Tribunal and other parties in the broader claims process still largely remains unexplored in history writing more generally – despite the Tribunal reports being widely available and downloadable. But there are signs of change. Most recently, Michael Belgrave (“The Tribunal and the Past: Taking a Roundabout Path to a New History”, Waitangi Revisited: Perspectives on the Treaty of Waitangi, 2005) and Giselle Byrnes (The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History, 2004) have offered insights and critiques into how the Tribunal works, and the particular nature of the history it generates within its unique intellectual and political context. The Waitangi Tribunal offers a useful context in which to read such works.

Long-time Treaty claims scholar Richard Hill also takes up the issue of relations between Maori and the Crown, and the central role of the Treaty, in State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900–1950. His work draws directly on work embedded in the claims process, namely a report commissioned by the Crown Forestry Rental Trust on an overview of Maori quests for rangatiratanga (and the Crown’s responses) during the 20th century. But this book is also set firmly within the framework of scholarship about the Treaty and Maori-Crown relationships.

Hill confronts this scholarship head on as he argues that Maori quests for rangatiratanga – that state they believed would be respected under the Treaty of Waitangi – were “endemically violated” by the Crown. The story of Crown-Maori relations is, he suggests, that of the coercive realities underpinning the imperial enterprise. Here Hill also reaches into his long-standing interest on the coercive powers of the state. The “real” question we should be asking, in his view, “is not how far the Crown went towards meeting Maori aspirations for rangatiratanga in the twentieth century, but whether it was ever really concerned with doing so.”

Absolutely not, according to Hill. Maori never ceased their attempts to forge an autonomy – much of the evidence for this is found in Tribunal reports, he reminds us – but the state had little interest in matters of indigenous justice. One example after another tells a story of autonomy won and lost, granted temporarily or as circumstances allowed. The Arawa Lakes Settlement of the 1920s is a case in point. The multi-faceted benefits of this ensured strong tribal involvement in the control of waters and foreshores, and the Arawa District Trust Board considered itself as a local parliament and government. It was set up, however, so that the Crown would always retain the upper hand. Still, as Hill points out, that meaningful if inadequate step towards rangatiratanga was a compromise that Maori could accept.

Hill’s case is forcefully argued. He has little truck with “wishful thinking” historians who see a benign Crown falling short, or missing opportunities to act differently. Hill puts himself into a more “hard-headed” school where the state is motivated by its own definitions of the public good, and in which rangatiratanga had no part. Stoushes between historians are probably of more interest to those in the know, but Hill’s point is clear: the Crown was not interested in Maori self-determination. This raises significant questions about the Crown’s actions and motivations. A second volume is promised, to take the story from 1950 to the present. It will be interesting to read Hill’s take on more recent events, for this work will be, in effect, another interpretation of the Tribunal, the Treaty claims process, and modern New Zealand.


Bronwyn Dalley is a Wellington public historian.


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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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