One of the best available accounts of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi is given by William Colenso, who was there at the time and a fluent speaker of Māori.

Colenso describes Governor Hobson standing to explain the purpose of the proposed treaty. The missionary Henry Williams translated. Hobson started by saying that the Queen of England wished to do right by the Native people of New Zealand.

But as the law of England gives no civil powers to Her Majesty out of her dominions, her efforts to do you good will be futile unless you consent…

The people of Great Britain are, thank God! free; and, as long as they do not transgress the laws they can go where they please… You have sold them lands here and encouraged them to come here. Her Majesty, always ready to protect her subjects, is also always ready to restrain them.
Her Majesty the Queen asks you to sign this treaty, and to give her that power which shall enable her to restrain them.”

In case you missed it, he is saying ‘to restrain THEM’, the English who had come here, who were running amuck in Kororāreka (Russell) and the like.

He then read out the treaty in Māori, which affirmed the right of hapu to their tino rangatiratanga – their own authority. It granted the rights of British Citizens to the Māori people, and protected the rights of different faiths (including Māori spiritual practises). And it provided for the Crown to exercise ‘kawanatanga’ – the ability to pass laws to restrain their own people.

The often repeated claim that Māori ceded their sovereignty when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi is simply incorrect. The Māori language translation that was read out, and that Hobson and almost all the rangatira signed, makes no mention of cedeing sovereignty. It is that version that takes precedence under the international legal principle of contra preferentum.

It seems obvious really. Why would they give up their right to rule themselves? They outnumbered the British many times over. They did not need to come under the authority of Queen Victoria to reap the benefits of technology transfer. Māori were already doing very well, adopting European ways of doing things where it suited them and keeping their own where it didn’t. Māori food growers fed Auckland, Māori textiles and timber filled the holds of trading ships and Maōri owned fleets were sailing to Australia and the USA to do commerce.

Some people have said that colonisation benefitted Māori. It is hard to see how. Māori were already enjoying the fruits of this rich cultural exchange. How could colonisation – war, murder, rape, the theft of land and resources, the attempted destruction of culture and traditional political organisation – add anything positive to that?

Today more people are becoming aware of that history. There is no reason for anyone today to feel guilty about it, nor would guilt serve any useful purpose. Neither can we return to 1840, even if we wished to. What we can do is reflect on what kind of nation we are today, and what we wish to be. How might our political-economic system serve us ALL better, empowering ordinary people over corporate power? How might it reflect more of the generosity of spirit that characterised that momentous event at Waitangi (and around the country – it wasn’t until 16 July that the Treaty was signed at Pōhaturoa by rangatira of Ngāti Pūkeko and Ngāti Awa).

There is a lot of talk about ‘co-governance’ at the moment, for example in 3 waters. The reality is that while Iwi Māori do get input into some very high level statements and expectations, the water services entities will be governed by independent boards. Iwi will have a say on the make up of the panel that decides who will sit on those boards, but that is as close as they get to the board table. Having a Māori world view represented in setting the DNA of those entities , though, will benefit us all. It doesn’t deserve the racist backlash that we’ve seen.

Perhaps in some ways more interesting is what happens at a local level. Local Government reform is a chance to examine the role of local councils in relation to Tangata Whenua, and to more clearly define the boundaries between them. Constitutional reform, to recognise the mana of Tangata Whenua and at the same time to provide an inherent right for Local Government and local decision-making, would be a step forward in my opinion. I would like to see local government legislation better provide for the resource management practises that Māori developed over centuries and that were attuned to the needs of specific catchments, ecosystems, climatic zones. I would like to see the intergenerational aspirations and values of a Tangata Whenua worldview embedded into council long-term planning frameworks. And I would like to see the relationship between local authorities and Tangata Whenua organisations (both post settlement entities and hapū) clarified and improved.

We shouldn’t be frightened of these discussions. This is an exciting opportunity to think about what it means to live in Aotearoa today. We all want the best for our descendants, and those descendants are increasingly Māori AND Pākeha, and chosing to honour their whole whakapapa. Let us mold our democracy to be something unique in the world, something that brings together the best of the Westminster adversarial system of representative majoritarianism with the best of Indigenous practise and decision-making. A system grounded in the reality of living in Aotearoa New Zealand.

First published in the Whakatāne Beacon 3/2/23

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