Opinion: Activists should've used masking tape instead of vandalising Treaty of Waitangi display at Te Papa

  • 19/12/2023

By Associate Professor Anaru Eketone

OPINION - I am not one who supports the vandalism of the English version of the Treaty of Waitangi at Te Papa by a group of Pākehā and Māori activists.

Damaging someone else's property for the sake of emphasising a message is not something I condone, especially when they could have easily got the same message through by using masking tape.

My reasons are because I have seen too much destruction, of what others hold dear, by those trying to make religious or political points. It is because others have attacked our carvings, our marae and our sacred places that to rejoice in damage of this nature would make me a hypocrite.

Opinion: Activists should've used masking tape instead of vandalising Treaty of Waitangi display at Te Papa
Photo credit: Newshub

I do understand the sentiment though. The new coalition Government wants to lessen the impact of the Treaty of Waitangi on New Zealand society by removing references to the principles of the Treaty and enforce the view that the English version is the authoritative one.

Many disagree. One of the strongest arguments for the Māori version to be the authoritative one is that it was the one that 94 per cent of Māori signed. I think perhaps the stronger argument is to focus on the version that William Hobson signed on behalf of the British Crown and Government on that first Waitangi Day.

It was their document, outlining the terms that they had put forward and it defined what they would offer to allow the British Government in New Zealand. So the focus should not be on the version that the overwhelming number of Māori rangatira signed, but on the version that Hobson signed as the Crown's representative.

The only people who signed an English version was Hobson and a group of 30 chiefs who couldn't speak English

Hang on a minute, that was also the Māori version. The only people who signed an English version of the Treaty were Hobson and a group of 30 chiefs from the lower Waikato who couldn't speak English, but signed in April 1840 under the urging of Anglican missionary William Maunsell. In all, six copies of the Māori version were signed by Hobson and over 480 rangatira from all over the country.

Ever since it came into power in 1854, the New Zealand Government has not been keen on the Māori version. It became an issue in the 1970s when the Crown had to decide which version of the Treaty it would seek to honour. The Government of the time couldn't allow the Māori version to take precedence as it called into question whether Māori had actually signed away sovereignty. As a compromise it was decided that Parliament would give equal weight to both versions of the Treaty. Instead of focusing on the actual texts of the documents they would describe principles that could be drawn from the two versions as well as some of the recorded discussion and documents associated with it.

In my view, the first principle that enables the rest to occur is the principle that both sides signed the Treaty in good faith. While each side had their own vision of the future, there is an assumption that neither side did so with the intention of “screwing” the other over. The colonial secretary's instructions to Hobson were very clear, “All dealings with the aborigines for their lands must be conducted on the same principles of sincerity, justice and good faith as must govern your transactions with them for the recognition of her Majesty's sovereignty in these islands.”

From there we have a variety of different principles based on the purpose for which the Treaty is applied. The Waitangi Tribunal, which is the expert in this area, has laid out its set of principles, that claimants have to prove that the Government violated or didn't uphold (see its website).

Sometimes other principles have been defined based on specific issues. The State Owned Enterprises Act mentions the term “the principles of the Treaty” but didn't specify what the principles were, and so the Court of Appeal defined them for this purpose as honour, good faith, reasonable actions and partnership.

For the purposes of the implementation of social policy they were defined by the Royal Commission on Social Policy as partnership, participation and protection. An important set of principles derived from the Māori version are that the Government has the right to govern and make laws, Māori have the right to manage our own affairs and that everyone is equal before the law.

While there seem to be several Treaty principles, they all have their place and their context. They are also not difficult to find. Anyone who says they don't know what the principles are is either disingenuous or hasn't bothered to do a simple internet search.

Yes, the principles evolve and change depending on the circumstances, but that is the consequence of not taking literally the Māori language version of the Treaty of Waitangi signed by representatives of both the Crown and Māori.

Anaru Eketone is an Associate Professor in social and community work at the University of Otago

This story has been published with permission after originally being published in the Otago Daily Times.