Chris Trotter: Contested ground

Chris Trotter: Contested ground

LAST WEEK The Waitangi Tribunal released Tino Rangatiratanga me te Kāwanatanga: The Report on Stage 2 of the Te Paparahi o Te Raki Inquiry(Wai 1040). For the sake of brevity, I shall refer to this spawling document as the Northland Report. Sadly, the Report seems destined to make the already fraught relationship between Māori and the Crown even worse. Questions relating to who wields sovereignty in New Zealand – including Northland – are fast acquiring the sort of weight and momentum that drives people irresistibly towards the conclusion that push is coming to shove.

There was a time when those with an interest in history would have embraced the Northland Report with relish. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible in New Zealand. History, like so many other subjects, has become a bitterly contested ideological ground. A discipline where angry partisans struggle for supremacy.

For the moment, at least, the upper hand lies where it has lain for the past 50 years – with the Tribunal. For most of that time New Zealanders assumed that those weighing the evidence which claimants brought before the Tribunal were dispassionate professionals. Only relatively recently has it become clear that the Tribunal’s “history” is little more than compensatory fiction, composed by Māori and/or Māori-identifying “historians” to clear the way for the Crown’s acknowledgement of wrong-doing and, ultimately, to secure compensation for the manifold sins of our colonial fathers.

In short, the Waitangi Tribunal has taken upon itself the risky business of inserting indigenous moral judgements into the amoral narrative of New Zealand’s past. I say “amoral” for the very simple reason that the events of the past, like those of the present, are driven by such a multiplicity of factors that expecting them to elicit universal approval, or condemnation (like the Holocaust) is nonsensical.

The current Minister for Treaty Settlements, for example, Paul Goldsmith, sees as much virtue as vice in the colonisation of New Zealand – an historical perspective that would find few supporters among Māori Treaty historians. Māori scholars, and their allies, present colonisation as an unmitigated disaster: an historical catastrophe from which the indigenous people of New Zealand are only now beginning to recover.

With this view of New Zealand history, the Tribunal is clearly in steadfast agreement. Its reports are based on the testimony of the aggrieved, and upon their carefully curated historical grievances. Only to this “evidence” does the Tribunal accord the status of unchallengeable truth. And only these, the Tribunal’s truths, are allowed to prevail over what is invariably characterised as the evil historical choices of the Crown. That this Manichean historiography cannot help but infantilise Māori, turning them into trusting dupes of the wicked Pakeha, and denying them the dignity of effective historical agency, is deemed an acceptable price to pay by a Waitangi Tribunal determined to deliver to Māori claimants a browbeaten and guilt-ridden Crown.

A stricken Crown cannot be secured, however, unless the Treaty of Waitangi is itself reconceived as something other than what it so clearly was: an agreement securing the voluntary cession of Māori sovereignty to the British Crown. A Crown committed to protecting the native people’s “lands, forests and fisheries” from rapacious chancers like the New Zealand Company; and to safeguarding their persons from allcomers by granting them the full rights and privileges of British subjects.

But, such a Treaty would require the Māori chiefs and their people to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Queen Victoria. Any concerted failure to do so would oblige the colonial authorities to enforce the Crown’s supremacy.

Obviously, that Treaty of Waitangi was no good. What the Tribunal needed was a Treaty that left the sovereignty of the chiefs intact and unhindered by the decisions of a government in faraway London.

But, once again, this could only be achieved by asserting that the chieftains gathered at Waitangi were too dim-witted to understand the proposition that was being put to them. That, in all their debates over whether or not Captain Hobson’s proposed agreement was worth signing, there was not one Māori leader with even the slightest understanding that they were dealing with the wealthiest and most powerful entity on the planet. Not one who grasped that if they failed to secure the “protection” of Great Britain, then they would soon be receiving the “attentions” of her rivals.

In reality, there were many Māori present who understood exactly what Hobson was offering, and explained it clearly to those who demonstrated confusion. We know this because the impassioned refusals by a number of chiefs to surrender their freedom of action to the British was recorded by those present at Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Those who did sign knew what they were getting – and what they were giving away.

Reputable historians do not present grown human beings as innocent children, or confused savages, incapable of understanding the political, economic and military realities of their time. Nor do they construct frankly ridiculous constitutional scenarios in which the British Government of 1840 was happy to share power with “natives” whom the science of the day proclaimed their inferiors. Since 2014, the Waitangi Tribunal has been indulging in what might best be called “Bridgerton History” – i.e. refashioning the realities of the past to meet the ideological specifications of the present.

Among those ideological specifications, at least in New Zealand, is that the nation state which grew out of the Treaty of Waitangi (as understood prior to the 1980s) must be “decolonised”. Part and parcel of that decolonisation process, from the perspective of the Māori people of the North, will be the creation of a territorial entity in which the writ of the New Zealand state no longer runs. What Hōne Heke Pōkai could not hold, Christopher Luxon is expected to hand back.

But Luxon (or any other prime minister of New Zealand for that matter) cannot do that without sanctioning the state’s disintegration – something which Pakeha (and not a few Māori) simply will not permit. The nation which the 1840 Treaty enabled has come too far to surrender itself to a political project dedicated to the proposition that it should never have been permitted to exist in the first place. Christopher Luxon may soon find himself playing the role of Abraham Lincoln, fighting to preserve the unity of his country against those who would refashion it according to the ugly and divisive considerations of race.



Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s leading leftwing political commentator, with 30 years of experience writing professionally about New Zealand politics. He now writes regularly for the Democracy Project, producing his column “From the Left”.

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