Trick or Treaty


The Treaty of Waitangi means whatever you want it to mean,
as long as you’re against it.

Hui Taumata picRūnanga delegates from across the PSA gather to plan and discuss issues relating to Maori PSA members.

Columnists condemn it, courts misconstrue it, and activists used to call it a fraud. For tourists visiting this country, this must come across as a little strange. Americans venerate their founding documents. The French do too. On International Human Rights Day thousands of South Africans take to the streets to commemorate their constitutional anniversary. But for a good number of New Zealanders the Treaty seems best left in the 19th century.

We can call this the Don Brash position, and it remains stubbornly popular. In 2011 a UMR poll found only 55 percent of New Zealanders agreed that the Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document, a historical fact so obvious anything less than 100 percent is a worry. In the run-up to Waitangi Day, The AM Show published a poll asking New Zealanders whether we should rename it to New Zealand Day. In the NZ Herald Mike Hosking asked “what’s the point” of commemorating our founding day anyway.

From here it might seem as if things are as bleak as they ever were, but beneath the misunderstandings and misconstructions important shifts are happening. In 2012 the Ministry of Education surveyed 4000 year nine students and found that two-thirds agreed the Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document. Speaking at the Treaty Grounds in February, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told her audience she is committed to building a country where the Treaty is part of a living history.

Unions taking action

“The rednecks are never going to put the Treaty back in a box,” said Syd Keepa, the Council of Trade Union’s vice-president Māori, “and unions helped lead the way.” In the 1970s and 80s trade union leaders like the late Syd Jackson were helping lead the movement to secure Treaty justice. “Union members and leaders were at every struggle. The reason Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) remained undeveloped for so long was because union members put a green ban on the site, that means they wouldn’t work on the site as long as Ngāti Whātua opposed it,” explained Keepa.

Bastion Point is a promontory above Tāmaki Drive, one of the wealthiest square miles in the country. In 1977, hundreds of activists from the Ōrākei Māori Action Committee occupied Takaparawhā, urging the country to join their calls to end development on one of Ngāti Whātua’s last remaining parcels of land. The surrounding land, alongside most of the Auckland isthmus, was taken from local iwi in breach of the Treaty. “When the army and the cops came in in 1978 to take the activists off their own land, union members across Auckland went on a wildcat (illegal) strike,” said Keepa.

“This is what the union movement owes Māori under the Treaty – solidarity.”

The relationship between Māori and unions reaches back to the turn of the twentieth century. In 1919 Bob Tūtaki, Ngāti Kahungunu, a shearer and union organiser, travelled the country urging Māori to support the formation of the New Zealand Workers’ Union. “Let us stand up with one common mind ... stick together, everybody, remember that old Māori philosophy, “tatau tatau”, meaning altogether,” he would tell his fellow workers. But despite the long relationship, and some famous acts of solidarity along the way, some unions still struggled to include Māori in institutional life with the Waterside Workers’ Union head office refusing to print recruitment and advice in te reo Māori for its nearly all- Māori membership on the North Island’s East Coast.

Walking the talk

“We’re committed to ensuring the PSA walks the talk,” said PSA member and sector māngai for the District Health Board sector Lesley Dixon. “But [we] still have a long way to go and we’re still in the early stages of learning how to integrate Te Titiri o Waitangi values of rangatiratanga, whanaungatanga, kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga, kotahitanga, and wairutanga into our operational kaupapa.” The PSA represents almost 6000 Māori members in the workplace while the Rūnanga represents Māori members within the union itself.

“The Treaty’s profile has certainly increased within the PSA,” said Dixon, “we now have the Ngā Kaupapa paper instigated by Te Rūnanga which is committed to the above concepts.” But, she added, "there is always room for further discussion about what the Treaty means for the PSA"

Under the Treaty, Article II of the Māori language version – the version preferred by both the Waitangi Tribunal and international law – says Māori retain their “tino rangatiratanga” while the Crown acquires “kāwanatanga.” These competing terms are the source of more than a century of angst of where power lies.

Kāwanatanga first appears in the preamble to the Treaty and historian and language expert Professor Margaret Mutu translates it as “governorship over British subjects,” meaning kāwanatanga is what is termed a relational concept. Tino rangatiratanga appears later in the document and is usually translated as unfettered chieftainship. So while the English text says that the rangatira who sign surrender their sovereignty to the Crown, the Māori text says the rangatira retain what is the closest power to sovereignty in the Māori world, tino rangatiratanga. In other words, the English text asks rangatira to cede what they just affirmed in the Māori text.

“It’s Te Tiriti that matters,” adds Keepa, noting that the overwhelming majority of rangatira signed the Māori language version. This also matters in the union context as well: “remember unions aren’t the Crown, but they’re still part of the Treaty.” Tangata whenua on one side – people of the land – and tangata tiriti on the other – people of the Treaty.

The Crown undertook to recognise tino rangatiratanga in exchange for its power to govern its own subjects, but those same subjects – or citizens as we say now – are also bound to recognise Māori as tangata whenua with all the powers of rangatiratanga.

“There’s heaps of work to do,” Dixon told me. “But it’s an exciting time to be part of the Treaty’s resurgence and part of the push to see it recognised within the PSA and normalised as the country’s founding document.”

By Morgan Godfery (Ngāti Awa)