Explainer: The fight over the Treaty of Waitangi

Sharon Brettkelly for The Detail

Re-visiting the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi would have wide-ranging effects on all sorts of legislation, but even if that doesn't happen, the debate around it is having wide-ranging effects on Māori.

"Te tiriti o Waitangi is sacrosanct!" 

"There's no question about this; this is an attempt to abolish the Treaty of Waitangi." 

"I sense that the mania that gripped iwi in the seabed and foreshore is starting to trickle through over the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi."

"We don't expect to be just spoken to. We want the opportunity to be walking side by side and working with you." 

All recent quotes from prominent Māori figures, amid growing fear and anger over the fate of a 184-year-old document that a junior coalition partner wants to re-visit. 

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has repeatedly said ACT's bill calling for a referendum over the Treaty principles won't get beyond its first reading. 

That referendum looks to be dead in the water. 

But there's more to it than that. 

It is the new coalition government's moves to cut the use te reo Māori in public life, back away from co-governance, and roll back plans for greater Māori control over health services.

One expert in the Treaty admits he's taken aback by how swiftly things have developed in the last six months. 

"There has been a real anger at the government in terms of its stepping back from its obligations under Te Tiriti," says Ngāti Kahungunu lawyer Carwyn Jones. 

He has worked at the Waitangi Tribunal, the Māori Land Court and the Office of Treaty Settlements, and now teaches Māori lore and philosophy at Te Wānanga o Raukawa at Ōtaki.

So yes, he has skin in the game. 

But The Detail is talking to him today because of his academic knowledge and expertise in the country's founding document, so he can explain what the Treaty is and what it means. 

He talks to Sharon Brettkelly about the differences between the articles of the Treaty, the document signed between tribal chiefs and the British Crown; and the Principles, which are legal constructs cemented into the country's laws. 

Jones takes us through what guarantees and promises Māori were given, and what was promised in return. 

"The principles of the Treaty has been a kind of legal mechanism, by which Māori have been able to achieve some measure of influence, or to give some effect to the promises or the guarantees in Te Tiriti. The principles are something that have been created by our Parliament. You know often we hear [ACT's] David Seymour talk about that Parliament hasn't had an opportunity to have a say on this ... well it was Parliament that established this legal construct of the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi." 

While the Waitangi Tribunal has been working on what the Principles mean in reality for people for nearly 50 years, and from the late 1980s onwards that those Principles have worked their way into other pieces of legislation, and to come up in ordinary courts as well. 

If the principles change ... we're looking at an unravelling of a multitude of guiding rules for organisations, for legislation, employment agreements and policy documents. 

"It would mean a whole range of legislation would become uncertain." 

Check out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.  

You can also stay up-to-date by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter

Explainer: The fight over the Treaty of Waitangi