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Victoria researcher questions Tribunal history

Victoria researcher questions Tribunal history

The Waitangi Tribunal's reports are a noble but flawed experiment in trying to reassess the history of the relationship between Maori and Crown, says Victoria University historian Dr Giselle Byrnes.

Dr Byrnes, a Senior Lecturer in History, argues in The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History, that the Tribunal is not writing "objective history" but one that is deeply political and overwhelmingly focused on the present, applying the standards of today to the actions of the past.

Dr Byrnes, a former Tribunal researcher, has examined the reports of the Tribunal since it was established in 1975 and has observed how, since the 1990s, it has interpreted its mandate in terms of social justice as well as examining a specific claim and making recommendations.

"The Tribunal's more recent narratives are imbued with a philosophy that challenges the legitimacy of colonisation. It has moved away from an emphasis on partnership, which was a common thread in its earlier reports, to one that emphasises Maori sovereignty. Yet the Tribunal doesn't assess whether Maori sovereignty can co-exist with Crown sovereignty.

"As an historian, I believe history is inherently political but the Tribunal does not acknowledge that it has a philosophy or even that it is writing history, instead repeatedly saying it is simply issuing a report as a Commission of Inquiry.

"There is a tension in the reports that stems from the Tribunal's work as a quasi-judicial body. On the one hand it is obliged to acknowledge the evidence presented before it and the cross-examination of witnesses, yet on the other it must also rely on the historical documentary record."

While deeply supportive of the claims process, and the Tribunal's work to settle the grievances of the past, as an academic, Giselle believes its reports should not be immune from scholarly critique.

"There are serious problems in the reports as historical narratives in the way they make sweeping generalisations. There is, for instance, much more detail given to Maori protagonists who are more �efleshed out�f, while Pakeha generally appear as more one-dimensional characters."

Dr Byrnes says the Tribunal has tried to fulfil an educative role that it is has neither the resources to carry out nor a specific legislative mandate to do.

Despites these flaws, she says the Tribunal's reports should not be simply dismissed. Its work has resulted in several landmark settlements that have seen apologies made and substantial recompense granted as well as generating substantial public debate.

"The Tribunal has become an important institution„Ÿboth for Maori and non-Maori. It has also increased public and political awareness of the Treaty of Waitangi, of Crown breaches of the Treaty, and of the many injustices against Maori that have marginalised them in the past and continue to do so today."

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