Bryce Edwards: Fixing Treaty ignorance in politics and schools

Bryce Edwards: Fixing Treaty ignorance in politics and schools

2019’s Waitangi commemorations will be mostly remembered for two debates – whether the Prime Minister should be able to recite the detail of the Treaty of Waitangi, and whether the teaching of the Treaty and colonial history in New Zealand should be compulsory.

PM’s unawareness of the Treaty Articles

Jacinda Ardern’s awkward answers about the Treaty of Waitangi were uncomfortable watching, not just for supporters of the Government and a more Treaty-driven politics, but also for anyone wary of being put on the spot about contentious issues. You can watch the encounter here, where TVNZ’s Maiki Sherman asks the PM what the articles of the Treaty say – see: Jacinda Ardern fumbles over what Treaty of Waitangi articles say – ‘Article One? On the spot?’

The Leader of the Opposition was also quizzed but had the great advantage of taking the test after the Prime Minister – see 1News’ Bridges has quick refresher to pass Treaty of Waitangi quiz after Ardern’s fumble yesterday.

So, was the PM’s ignorance of the Treaty something she should be criticised for? Definitely, according to Heather du Plessis-Allan. She says, “the country’s leaders have headed up to Waitangi to try to look woke around race relations. But, if you are aiming to look woke, you better be woke” – see: Jacinda Ardern should have been able to recite the Treaty.

Du Plessis-Allan expresses sympathy for Ardern but explains why we should take her failure seriously: “She is the country’s leader after all. She is the one who celebrated the launch of the Crown-Māori Relations Portfolio by saying, ‘My vision is that we as a country realise the promise of the Treaty.’ How can you deliver on the promise of the Treaty if you don’t know the promise of the Treaty? And she’s also the one using Waitangi Day as a PR opportunity.”

The unfortunate incident, in which “the PM’s lack of knowledge was exposed” also raises bigger questions for du Plessis-Allan about Ardern’s abilities: “It’s also a substance problem. This is a recurring theme with the Prime Minister. There’s a lot of style, especially on the international stage, but questions remain over substance back home.”

Similarly, former Act MP Rodney Hide writes today that the episode brings into focus the contrast between Ardern’s strengths and weaknesses: “She is wonderful wowing the people at Waitangi. She is great on the world stage. She exudes compassion. She makes a great celebrity. She would be tremendous addition to the Royal Family. But she’s Prime Minister. She’s responsible for the entire apparatus of government. She also needs to show depth. Her failure to know Article One reinforces a sense of shallowness that goes hand-in-hand with celebrity status” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s failure to recite Article One ‘inexcusable’.

For Hide, not all “gotcha questions” merit being taken seriously, but anything about the Treaty says a lot about an MP, because the “Treaty is a big deal politically, legally, constitutionally, and historically. It has a big impact” on government. He says that it’s “a basic expectation of being an MP” to be able “to rattle off the three Articles”. And he adds, “Don Brash could rattle it off in his sleep. Bill English could do so in Maori.”

Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper also argues that the Treaty question put to the PM was fair: “The question was asked for a reason, as the leader of the nation, attending what she’s turned into a personal five day event for her, she should have known the articles of the Treaty – there are only three of them. Forget the te reo version that she parroted, the English would have done. She was there after all, to commemorate the signing of the Treaty and should have been fully across its contents” – see: Our future generations need to understand the content of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Soper does, however, add a guess at how John Key would have dealt with the question: “his face would have broken into a wide smile but he more than likely wouldn’t have even attempted to answer.”

Some Māori leaders took Ardern to task for her inadequate response. Sonny Tau of Ngāpuhi chose to say the following in his Waitangi Day speech in front of Ardern: “Only one thing I’ve got to say this morning and that is: If we’re going to lead a country, we need to learn the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi… There are some of us, leaders, who have slipped up on that, and all I ask is by this time next year that we all know the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi” – see Zane Small and Jamie Ensor’s Ngāpuhi’s Sonny Tau takes jab at Jacinda Ardern’s Treaty knowledge in Waitangi speech.

Yesterday, Hinemoa Elder raised the bar even further, saying that it’s not “sufficient” to be able to just recite the words of the Treaty, but it’s important to also have a relatively sophisticated analysis of them. She puts forward this challenge: “How many can recall these in Te Reo Māori, and English, and talk about the differences in interpretation and the inherent cultural clashes?” – see: We should all be familiar with the Treaty of Waitangi, here’s a 101.

Teaching the Treaty in schools

In her column, Elder concludes: “If we learnt them at school wouldn’t that make things easier? What a radical idea! Then from a young age we can debate the very ideas that underpin our national sense of who we are. Is that really so hard to put into practice?”

Many other commentators have made a similar connection between Ardern’s lack of knowledge and the need to have much more colonial history taught in New Zealand schools.

For example, Liam Hehir has responded to the incident by arguing “When even the ‘woke’ are ignorant about Te Tiriti o Waitangi, it’s clear we need to make teaching its history compulsory in schools” – see: If Jacinda doesn’t know the Treaty, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Hehir, who has a strong understanding of colonial history from his Palmerston North schooling, says he asked around amongst friends and family and found a similar level of unawareness of Treaty details: “I did not expect this. What was also unexpected was the fact that relative wokeness seemed to have little bearing on knowledge or ignorance about what is, whether you like it or not, the foundational basis for the existence of the country. I had expected those who make a point of being sensitive to the Treaty to have a working knowledge of what was actually in it. If that sounds like a snarky point, it’s not supposed to. It genuinely surprised me.”

There’s a petition underway, asking that a law be passed to make the teaching of the Treaty and colonial New Zealand history compulsory – see Adele Redmond’s article, Petition reignites debate over teaching New Zealand’s colonial history in schools.

According to this, the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association wants to see the “coherent teaching” of colonial history, with chairperson Graeme Ball being reported as saying “New Zealand’s colonial history was taught in an ‘ad hoc’ fashion, and students were ‘lucky’ if they learned about Parihaka, the New Zealand Land Wars, or the Waitangi Tribunal.”

Bell says “New Zealand was experiencing a ‘zeitgeist moment’, with more Kiwis willing to engage with te reo and New Zealand’s colonial history”, and the Government should therefore seize the chance to introduce compulsory courses.

The response has been generally positive. The New Zealand Herald responded with an editorial pointing out that an understanding of New Zealand’s history is vital, and because the phase of Treaty settlements is nearing an end, “it ought now to be possible to find a balanced history for teaching in schools” – see: Our history is contentious, that is all the more reason to teach it.

The Dominion Post has shown even more enthusiasm, saying the government has an opportunity it must seize: “History is often considered boring because of the tyranny of distance and time. Imagine history delivered at a very local level, as an engaging, exciting introduction to a wider context; how issues and incidents in your town, on your street, played a role in the bigger story; one that culminated in a historic day 179 years ago. It just needs a little imagination and some effort” – see: Let’s go back to the future.

Politicians respond to calls for colonial history in schools

Politicians are always fearful of being on “the wrong side of history”, but initially the Government poured cold water on the idea of compulsory courses in colonial history.

Kelvin Davis, who is Labour’s Deputy leader, associate minister of education, minister of Crown Māori relations, and a former teacher, was reported as rejecting the idea, saying: “In terms of the teaching of Te Tiriti in schools, remember that schools are self-governing, self-managing. It’s inappropriate for governments to come along and dictate specifics of what’s taught in schools” – see John Gerritsen’s History teachers decry ‘shameful’ ignorance of colonial, Māori history.

The Prime Minister is also reported as deflecting questions about proposal for schools to teach colonial history. She said: “My first question would be how many aren’t? I would be surprised if it wasn’t being taught universally.”

The same article also reports that “New Zealand First MP Shane Jones said it was up to schools to decide what they taught but he expected most, if not all, would teach students about the Treaty of Waitangi.”

But it wasn’t long before the Government warmed up to the idea, especially because opposition politicians were embracing the proposal. Audrey Young reported that: “There seems to be a consensus across the political spectrum about the need for schools to actively teach the Treaty of Waitangi in the context of New Zealand history, but with caveats. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, National leader Simon Bridges and Hobson’s Pledge spokesman Don Brash all supported education on the Treaty of Waitangi for New Zealand children” – see: Broad political agreement to teach NZ history and Treaty of Waitangi in schools, with caveats.

On Māori TV, some further details of what politicians thought were covered in Talisa Kupenga’s item, MPs at Waitangi talk colonial history in schools. For instance, Kelvin Davis says, “It’s right to give the Māori version and other versions [of colonial history] but I am of the opinion that the Māori version is the correct version.” And Youth Minister Peeni Henare asserts: “I want a unified standard. It is ad-hoc when it comes to how and what is taught in each area but we are all wanting the same thing; to teach children our history.”

Difficult questions about teaching political history

There is no doubt that any moves to establish greater teaching of New Zealand history would raise big questions about ideological and political impacts. After all, such compulsory lessons would amount to a version of “civics education” being introduced by proxy.

This is the concern of economics blogger Michael Reddell who says he is highly supportive of the principle of teaching New Zealand colonial history in schools but also highly sceptical about what it might mean in practice – see: Yes, but…. In this, Reddell argues that the prospect of political indoctrination is always a factor when government seek to introduce civics lessons.

Reddell explains that despite his enthusiasm for the study of New Zealand history, “what leaves me rather more ambivalent (‘yes, but….’)  is the sort of people who would be teaching our history, and/or designing any curriculum. Few of them seem to see New Zealand history as something to celebrate (I’m going to be fascinated to see how our Prime Minister treats the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first visit), and there is a strong theme of shame –  the ‘black armband’ approach to history –  combined with some agenda for how these people think society should be organised now or what role (say) the Treaty of Waitangi should play.”

Similarly, talkback radio host Sean Plunket believes there’s “a lot of BS in history”, and he “says it’s the version we learn that is important” – see Scott Palmer’s ‘Propaganda’: Sean Plunket slams ‘biased’ compulsory Māori history calls . He argues for a greater diversity of subject matter in the teaching of history.

Coming from a very different perspective, columnist Tom O’Connor says that a current lack of history in schools is leading to bigotry: “It is no wonder we hear such ill-informed and ignorant commentary every time the details of a Waitangi Tribunal hearing are announced. How can anyone be expected to understand the complexities of the issue if the underlying history is not known? In a vacuum of reliable and fact-based knowledge, mis-information and bigotry grow like mushrooms in a dark place” – see: Unacceptable not to teach children ‘complete’ NZ history.

O’Connor argues that New Zealand students learn their history too late, and contrasts this with other English-speaking countries: “American school kids begin learning their history from day one as do children in English and Irish schools. Some of us were taught selected parts of English history only, which had little if any relevance to us, but nothing of our own.”

In his opinion piece, Liam Hehir warns that it would be mistake to just replace English history with New Zealand history: “What happened in the United Kingdom – particularly during the period of the English Civil War – is also important for anybody who wants to understand the nature of our institutions and how they work. Anybody who has a good grasp of events of 17th century England and 19th century New Zealand will have a working knowledge of who we are and how we got here.”

As to the question of compulsion, University of Auckland history lecturer and Waitangi Tribunal member Aroha Harris takes on such questions, saying that compulsion is only necessary because a voluntary approach has failed – see: Don’t get me started on compulsion.

Harris lists other “compulsions” that she says Maori have had to put up with: “compulsory taking of Māori land, compulsory denial of te reo, compulsory restrictions on whāngai practices, on hapū fisheries, on customary resource management systems. Really. Just don’t get me started.”

And on the issue of what in the current school curriculum might be replaced by compulsory colonial lessons, Harris says: “(a) it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and (b), shall we reflect a little on what we’ve already lost by remaining ignorant of our past and acting like it doesn’t matter?”

Finally, for his take on what is wrong with the supposed “conservative” version of New Zealand colonial history, see David Slack’s liberal parody: A brief impartial history of New Zealand.