Thursday, February 05, 2009

What Waitangi Day means for New Zealanders

Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, 1840 (Alexander Turnbull
Every year on 6 February, New Zealand marks the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The day was first officially commemorated in 1934, and has been a public holiday since 1974. For some people, Waitangi Day is simply a holiday; for many, it is also the occasion for reflecting on the Treaty and its significance as a founding document that is still helping to shape contemporary New Zealand.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty was concluded between representatives of the Crown and of Maori tribes and sub-tribes, and is named after the place in the Bay of Islands where the Treaty was first signed. The Treaty was not drafted as a constitution or a statute: It was a broad statement of principles upon which the British officials and Maori chiefs made a political compact or covenant to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand to deal with pressing new circumstances.

The Treaty was prepared in just a few days. About 500 Maori debated the document for a day and a night before it was first signed by over 40 chiefs on 6 February 1840. Copies were then taken all around the country, and chiefs from many places added their signatures or marks. Eventually, about 540 chiefs gave their agreement.

The Treaty has three articles. In the English version, these are that Maori ceded the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Maori gave the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wished to sell and, in return, were guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Maori would have the rights and privileges of British subjects.

The Treaty in Maori was intended to convey the meaning of the English version, but over time some important differences have been identified and debated. Most significantly, in the Maori version the word 'sovereignty' was translated as ‘kawanatanga’ (governance): some Maori believed that the governor would have authority over the settlers alone. The English version also guaranteed undisturbed possession of all “properties”, but the Maori version spoke of “taonga” (ie treasures, not necessarily those that are tangible).

Observing the Treaty today

Since 1840, some actions taken by New Zealand governments resulted in the alienation of Maori land, waters and other resources from their owners without proper consent or compensation. Maori have tried to have their grievances addressed, and some early governments made inadequate attempts to settle some of their claims. But recent governments have recognised that the way some land transactions took place was unjust, leaving a strong sense of grievance with the original owners and their descendants.

In 1975, a commission of inquiry called the Waitangi Tribunal was created, to investigate the Crown's alleged breaches of the Treaty, and make recommendations to government to provide recompense. Since 1985 the tribunal has been able to consider Crown acts and omissions dating back to 1840. This has provided Maori with an important means to have their grievances against the actions of past governments investigated. The Tribunal is not however a court of law. It has authority only to make recommendations, which in most instances do not bind the Crown, the claimants, or any others. But the Tribunal's process is more inquisitorial and less adversarial than that followed in the courts. And it can actively search out material and facts to help it decide on a claim (courts are limited in their ability to do this).

If the government decides to accept the Tribunal’s recommendation to settle a claim, a separate body (the Office of Treaty Settlements) then negotiates on behalf of the Crown with the claimants. Once claimants and the Crown agree on the terms of a settlement, they sign a deed, and the Crown passes legislation to give effect to it and remove the tribunal's ability to inquire further into that claim.

More than 1000 claims have been lodged with the tribunal. Several large historical claims have already been settled, with a total value of NZ$600 million (over 400 million Kina).

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