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Ewan Morris: The Waitangi Tribunal And History

The Waitangi Tribunal And History

By Ewan Morris

New Zealand Herald columnist John Roughan has written some sensible, level-headed columns recently about the so-called ‘race debate’ launched by Don Brash’s Orewa speech. Unfortunately, these qualities were not evident in Roughan’s column in the Weekend Herald of 27-28 March, in which he accused the Waitangi Tribunal of writing one-sided history.

I can only assume that Roughan has not been to a Tribunal hearing for a very long time, if ever. He writes that, when it was first proposed to give the Tribunal jurisdiction to hear claims dating back to 1840, he imagined ‘claimants and Crown arguing forcefully, contesting facts with documentary evidence and analysing the motivations and implications of decisions with all the rigour of history’s method’. Had he been to a Tribunal hearing lately, that is precisely what he would have seen.

Many people believe that Tribunal inquiries into historical claims take too long. However, the process of hearing and reporting on claims takes so long in large part because the Tribunal takes seriously its role of carefully considering the enormous mass of evidence, and the competing views of historical events, put before it. If it were true, as Roughan seems to suggest, that the Tribunal simply accepts whatever the claimants tell it, its reports could be produced very quickly indeed.

Roughan’s description of the Tribunal inquiry process is wrong in several respects. He writes that claimant evidence relies largely on oral records, but then says that historians are in demand for Treaty research on behalf of claimants. He cannot have it both ways. In fact, while oral testimony based on personal experience and on stories handed down from previous generations does play an important role in claimant evidence, so too does extensive archival research by historians. The quality of this research varies, and some of it suffers from the tight timeframes within which historians sometimes have to work. But the Tribunal does not simply accept whatever claimant historians tell it - it tests the evidence and can, if necessary, go back to the original sources.

Nor is it true, as Roughan alleges, that historians are only employed by one side, or that the Crown does not contest claimant evidence in the course of Tribunal inquiries. The Crown employs historians, calls its own historical evidence, and vigorously tests and challenges claimant evidence and arguments. It has been rare for the Crown to make major concessions in historical inquiries, and it generally takes issue with every significant point in the claimants’ case. In fact, the Crown is sometimes in the odd position of contesting points in Tribunal inquiries that it would appear to have conceded in Treaty settlements.

This is not to say that the Tribunal process cannot be improved, or that Tribunal reports are above criticism. The Tribunal has been working in recent years to speed up and tighten the focus of its inquiry process, without losing its analytical rigour. And Tribunal reports have, at times, said stupid things. There can be little doubt that its Taranaki Report damaged the Tribunal’s credibility with many Pakeha. Unfortunately, that report’s account of the injustices that occurred to Taranaki Maori was overshadowed by its preposterous comparisons with other times and places. That was, however, eight years ago, and the Tribunal’s more recent historical reports have not come under the same fire.

Having provided a muddled and misleading account of the Tribunal’s supposed failings, Roughan goes on to launch an equally misguided critique of the current state of history as a discipline. He argues that history has abandoned the search for truth; that all stories are now held to be equally valid; that historians no longer engage with the raw material of the past, except to sneer at it on ideological grounds; that orally-transmitted evidence is not questioned; and that history is written for present-centred purposes. In Roughan’s view, ‘history is the study of the past purely to better understand it’, and historians should be ‘trying to find the truth of the past for its own sake’.

I am no rabid post-modernist of the kind Roughan sees as having taken control of history. I believe in the careful examination of evidence. I believe that oral evidence should not be accepted uncritically - but then neither should written evidence. I believe there are such things as facts proven beyond a reasonable doubt, although such facts are simply the building blocks of history: essential, but capable of being put together in many different ways. And I believe that historians should try to get as close to the truth as possible, while realising that truth will always remain elusive. In my experience, most other historians share these beliefs.

Where I profoundly disagree with Roughan, however, is in his belief that history should have no present-centred purpose, but should be about studying the past ‘for its own sake’. This is simply impossible. We always view history from the perspective of the present, and our interest in it arises from our present-day concerns and values. Even if our interest is not overtly political - if it is, say, to find out how we got to where we are today, to learn from the experience of the past, or simply to read moving or intriguing stories about people in the past - we are still not interested in the past for its own sake. We view history through the lens of the present, and it is futile to pretend otherwise.

We should, of course, try as much as possible to understand how people at the time viewed things. We need to try to understand the context within which they operated, and the options that were open to them. We should not rush to judgement, but neither should we shy away from assessing their actions in terms of our own values and beliefs. Indeed, if we are to learn from history, surely such assessments are essential?

It is impossible to produce an apolitical or neutral history. As soon as we decide to tell one story rather than another or to say that X led to Y - as soon as we make any choice or draw any conclusion about the story we are telling - we are making judgements. Those judgements, in turn, are based on our values and beliefs, including our political beliefs. Try writing a ‘value-free’ history, and then show it to a historian: she will quickly identify the ways in which your values have, unknowingly, come through.

Roughan writes that he loved history as an undergraduate, and likes to think that if he hadn’t become a journalist he might have become a historian. It is a shame he did not persist with his study of history. It would not have made him a wealthy man (although Roughan claims that the historical Treaty claims process has made history ‘prosperous’, he will find few historians driving BMWs). But it might have taught him to avoid simplistic dichotomies. Somewhere between the opposing poles of history as the search for the truth of the past ‘for its own sake’, and history as a post-modern free-for-all with no concern for the truth, lies the more complex, varied and endlessly fascinating country which most historians inhabit.


- Ewan Morris is a historian who worked for the Waitangi Tribunal from 1999 to 2002.

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