The longest running conversation on the New Zealand Constitution between Māori and the Crown is climaxing in our time towards mature nationhood. The conversation began in 1840 when the rangatira, the sovereigns of the soil made it clear to the British Resident James Busby they would not surrender their mana to the British Crown. The position staked out by rangatira of the Northern Confederation of Tribes was embedded in the Treaty of Waitangi signed on 6 February 1840.
In article one of the Treaty rangatira ceded Kāwanatanga to the Crown, the right to govern. That cession was counterbalanced by the Crown’s guarantee of tino rangatiratanga, in article two. The guarantee of undisturbed possession of all they treasured seduced rangatira into thinking they had entered into a confederation, with the Governor ruling over European settlers like a tribal chief and the rangatira ruling over their own people as before.
What rangatira did not understand in 1840 was the nature of the British Empire which characterised itself as civilised, and people it encountered in the new world as savage, uncivilised natives, inferior to Europeans. The British fitted the people they encountered into a racial hierarchy with Europeans on the top and natives at the bottom. For Māori that meant being shut out of power, negating article two of the Treaty.
In 1854 when the General Assembly met for the first time under the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, it was an all white male Parliament. Rangatira urged the Governor to establish a rūnanga to make their own laws, they were ignored. Rangatira responded by electing a Māori king in 1858 to stop tribal quarrels, hold mana whenua and to live in harmony with the Crown.
Despite King Tāwhiao’s declaration of peaceful coexistence with the Crown, the Empire reverted to type – military invasion of the Waikato in 1863, and confiscation of 1.2 million acres of Tainui land. Although the Kingitanga was debilitated, the conquest was incomplete. The Imperial Army was mauled at Rangiriri, thwarted of a coup de main at the Battle of Ōrākau and routed at Pukehinahina. These battles, whose 150ththis year by Tainui, drove General Cameron to the conclusion that New Zealand could not be taken by conquest. The terms of unconditional surrender were softened and peace made after British military honour was redeemed at the minor Battle of Te Ranga.
The Colonial Office warned against confiscating land and there was a risk it would take control of Native Affairs. That risk was averted when Donald McLean Secretary of Native Affairs introduced the Māori Representation Act 1867 to establish four Māori seats. The claim there was no greater gift to a native race than representation in Parliament mollified the Colonial office. Underlying this gift to the natives was a more subtle agenda. On a population basis Māori were entitled to twenty seats That would have been an impediment to the easy acquisition of Māori land. Limiting the seats to four kept Māori subordinate.
Rangatira, not being the instigators of Māori representation, pursued their own political agenda culminating in the establishment of the Māori Parliament 1892. Rangatira proposed a anniversary was celebrated Maori Rights Bill for the retention, management and development of Māori land which was rejected by the General Assembly. The Government then subverted the Māori Parliament by giving Māori a semblance of local government under the Māori Councils Act 1900. The Māori Councils functioned well for ten years. When the Government was satisfied the Māori Parliament was moribund, it stopped supporting the Councils and they too died on the vine.
The political vacuum was filled by the first wave of Māori graduates Apirana Ngata, Peter Buck and Māui Pōmare who entered Parliament in the Māori seats. This movement known as the Young Māori Party initiated a cultural recovery. But when Ngata captured a substantial budget for his Māori Land Development Scheme, the Public Service turned against him. The Scheme was bad-mouthed in the press, precipitating a review by the Auditor General. Although the review cleared Ngata of malfeasance, he resigned as Minister of Native Affairs in 1934 to preserve the integrity of the Scheme.
In the meantime the prophet Rātana turned his religion into a political movement which tabled a petition in the House with 30,000 signatures to ratify the Treaty of Waitangi. The Government responded at the minimal level of printing copies of the Treaty to be hung in classrooms of the nation. Rātana subsequently captured the four Māori seats and delivered them to the Labour Party. The advent of the Welfare State under the first Labour Government 1935-49 cemented the Rātana – Labour alliance. Eruera Tirikātene wanted the portfolio of Māori Affairs, but it was taken by Walter Nash who fobbed him off with the minor portfolios of Forestry, and Printing and Stationary.
The 1972-75 Labour Government finally paid its dues to the Rātana alliance when Matiu Rata was appointed Minister of Lands and Māori Affairs. Rata’s crowning achievement was the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal albeit restricted by his colleagues to investigate grievance only after the Tribunal was established in 1975.
In Opposition, Labour reverted to type, with Bill Rowling taking spokesman for Māori Affairs and demoting Rata from the front bench. Rata resigned from Labour and founded the Mana Motuhake Party. Although Mana Motuhake did not gain political traction it was the first rift in the Ratana-Labour alliance.
The advent of MMP in 1996 changed the political landscape, producing a Parliament that was more representative of a cross section of New Zealand society. One of my students whose thesis was on MMP quipped the acronym meant more Māori in Parliament. And so it proved to be. New Zealand First led by Winston Peters wrested five of the now seven Māori seats from Labour. When four of the “tight five “ became “loosies,” by not supporting their leader’s stance on Wellington Airport, they were punished by the seats being returned to Labour.
In 2004, Labour’s hold on the Māori seats was compromised by the knee-jerk reaction of Prime Minister Helen Clarke to the Māori claim on the foreshore and seabed. The right totest the claim in a court of law was denied by hasty legislation, precipitating Tāriana Tūria’s resignation from Labour and the formation of the Māori Party which took four Māori seats from Labour in 2005. At the next election in 2008, the Māori Party won five of the seven Māori seats from Labour, putting it in a strong position in post-election coalition discussions.
In a brilliant political move, running counter to his party’s long standing policy to abolish Māori representation, John Key invited the Māori Party into government as a coalition partner. That is the closest the nation has come to honouring the compact the Crown made with rangatira 174 years ago.
In the meantime, a barely noticed social transformation has occurred, the emergence of a Māori middle class trained in arts, science, medicine and law. In 2003 the Māori Centre of Research Excellence, Ngā Pae oTe Māramatanga, set a target of 500 Māori PhDs within ten years. The target has been exceeded and the Māori middle class is reflected in the political spectrum. Winston Peters, Tāriana Tūria and Metīria Tūrai are leaders of New Zealand First, the Māori Party and the Greens. The Key Government has three Māori Ministers in Cabinet, Paula Bennett, Hēkia Parata and Simon Bridges.
The Labour Party, with its colonial mindset of the “Last cab off the rank” towards the Māori Party, has yet to come to terms with the dynamic of “tino rangatiratanga.” That is about to change as a number of smart, sophisticated Māori are seeking nomination for Labour in general seats at the next election. They will cure the party of its long-standing malaise of not treating Māori as their social and intellectual equals.