Waitangi Tribunal report recommending Crown land be returned to Māori front of mind at talks

New Zealand is capable of having a peaceful and empathetic conversation about the future of our constitutional arrangements and how treaty breaches are addressed, says the chair of a collective representing more than 100,000 members of the country's largest iwi.

Te Rūnanga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi chairperson Wane Wharerau says there may be "naysayers", but he has "full faith in our country" to consider these issues and deal with what he says has been 183 years of "mischief" from the Crown.

His comments come as Government ministers and members of iwi descend upon Waitangi for annual talks and commemorations.

Front of mind for many will be a milestone Waitangi Tribunal report released late in December that found Crown interactions with Māori between 1840 and 1900 breached the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

The nearly 2000-page document contains a number of recommendations, including that the Crown provides "substantial" compensation to Māori in the northern district, return all Crown-owned land in the area to Te Raki Māori, and determine constitutional processes and institutions that give effect to Tiriti rights.

Judge Craig Coxhead, who presided over the inquiry, said fulfilling the recommendations would require tino rangatiratanga to be meaningfully exercised at national, iwi and hapū levels. 

"Those discussions and negotiations will occur in part at a constitutional level and will require a sharing of power as envisaged in te Tiriti," he wrote. "We have no doubt that this process will be challenging for the Crown, but undertaking it in good faith is essential if the treaty partnership and the Crown's own honour is to be restored."

In an interview with Newshub ahead of the Waitangi events, Wharerau said the report's findings weren't surprising, but it was important for the conclusions to be made by an official body like the tribunal.

"It's something that we've known in our DNA since 1840, to be honest. There have been historic questions of the Crown regarding te Tiriti and the implications of it," he said. 

"It is significant. The biggest impact is the recognition of tino rangatiratanga. That in itself has formed a lot of discussion in terms of what that means. It will continue to be a discussion point for hapū and iwi."

Part of the Waitangi Tribunal's Te Paparahi o Te Raki (Northland) inquiry, the report considers claims brought by hapū from Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Hine, Patuharakeke, Ngāti Rehua, Ngāti Whātua and Ngāti Manuhiri. 

One key finding was that proclamations made in 1840 by the Crown to have sovereignty over the North Island and then the rest of the islands of New Zealand breached treaty principles as sovereignty hadn't been ceded by Te Raki Māori.

Opportunities to speak with leaders of Ngāpuhi about concerns the treaty was being ignored were ignored by the Crown, the tribunal found. Instead, it just took military action against them.

"It initiated attacks on pā and kāinga, made the surrender of land a condition of peace and did not adequately consider the welfare of non-combatants, among other failures. These Crown actions had severe short- and long-term effects on Ngāpuhi," the report said.

Inquiry district and taiwhenua.
Inquiry district and taiwhenua. Photo credit: Waitangi Tribunal.

Wharerau's Te Rūnanga-Ā-Iwi-Ō-Ngāpuhi is a collective of four groups that represent more than 125,000 people identifying as Ngāpuhi

The iwi has 110 hapū, which are well known for having their own independent views.

After the report was released, Wharerau said a hui was held where leaders discussed "how do you move 110 hapū forward?"

"There will be some who want to do their own thing. The recommendations acknowledge that people have their own independence. That's fine. 

"But if you wanted to get traction, particularly for economic growth, how do you do that with 110 hapū?"

He said the hapū are currently discussing the mammoth text and what they believe the next steps are. That might include considering how much compensation they believe could be fair as redress or how new constitutional processes may work. 

"There is going to be some hapū who will want to do things by themselves. We must recognise their independent right to do so. There is a lot of work and talk to be had."

The rūnanga supports hapū, Wharerau said, and it's ready "to take on any role that hapū ask of us".

"I will remain silent in terms of pushing out any recommendations or trying to take the lead from hapū," he said, acknowledging hapū have previously pushed back against the rūnanga taking charge.

The Government is yet to formally respond to the report's recommendation, but Kelvin Davis, the Minister for Te Arawhiti-Māori-Crown Relations, has welcomed it. 

"Time will now be taken to carefully consider and review the Tribunal's findings; this is incredibly important mahi and we have to make sure we get things right," Davis said.

"From here, it will be important for the Crown to have a discussion with all Māori represented in the findings about how tino rangatiratanga might be expressed practically in the 21st Century and how breaches of the Treaty might be remedied."

Kelvin Davis welcomed the report.
Kelvin Davis welcomed the report. Photo credit: Newshub.

It's clear it will be a lengthy process and Wharerau said it involves undoing 183 years of "mischief". 

"It's been a long time. 183 years coming up of misconstruing, I will say that carefully and probably kindly to the Crown, but probably more mischief.

"We can look back and see that the settlers saw an opportunity, took it, and that was all at experience of Māori in the main part."

He's also aware of the "politics at work", but he said Ngāpuhi are a "patient and humble people".

Political conversation in recent years about so-called "co-governance" arrangements has become heated, including with regard to iwi involvement in the Three Waters scheme.

He said he's mindful there will be "naysayers and people who push back on the findings and recommendations that are before us at the moment and who will want to discredit [them]". 

"The Government will have a lot of pressure on it to comply more so with a mainstream audience. That's undoubted. But I have full faith in our country. I think most of our people are fair-minded."

He hopes to see the Crown honour Te Tiriti as well as the tribunal report in a peaceful and empathetic manner.

"I think we are a country that can achieve that. Fair-minded people who are well-educated, understand the issues and I think want the best for everybody. What is good for Māori is good for the country.

"The days of accepting poor health outcomes, education, imprisonment and poor economic opportunities, we have to turn those dynamics around. That would be my call to the country."

Wharerau said the report would be a central point of discussion during Waitangi events.

"We've been talking to different ministers and the Iwi Chairs Forum is underway at the moment and they're talking with the Crown about several things," he said.

"Ngāpuhi have a large component of the current ministers in place who are well aware of iwi politics and well aware of Ngāpuhi's thoughts. They are part of hapū and part of the iwi.

"Of course, they need to be careful about what comments they make because they have a very different role with the Crown."

He said tino rangatiratanga is being spoken about "quite openly", but the parties need to deliberate "how you manage that moving forward".

"And also that it is something palatable for Māori, iwi, Ngāpuhi, and mainstream New Zealand. It would be naive to think that these parties should not and ought not to be involved."

Wharerau also acknowledged the "extraordinary group of people" who had helped raise these issues, including the late Titewhai Harawira and lawyer Moana Jackson. He said churches have also made the point of sticking to the facts "rather than saying things they think". 

"I'm not one to yell and scream. I can leave that to some of our more radical. They've got a role to play, to be frank. But there is a way forward, and a peaceful way forward. We don't have to yell and scream at one another, but sometimes the message needs to be amplified."

Wharerau wants people to remember they've got two ears and one mouth. 

"Unfortunately, a lot of people use that thing in front of their face a bit too much instead of listening to one another. If we listened a bit more, we would get to understand the other side's views sometimes."