Role of Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand society
7 December 2005
Critical role for Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand society
The Chairperson of the Waitangi Tribunal, Chief Judge Joe Williams, today released a position statement affirming the critical role played by the Waitangi Tribunal in advancing the settlement of Treaty claims.
"There is new confidence and dynamism in Maori communities that have concluded Treaty settlements", Judge Williams said. "But for many, these opportunities remain a long way in the future." Some Maori still lived with a deep sense of grievance about how they were treated in the past. When this was combined with deprivation and exclusion, it raised concerns about social cohesion.
"New Zealanders accept that these issues must be addressed," Judge Williams said. "It is necessary to resolve the grievances, restore the wellbeing of Maori communities, and reconcile Maori communities with the state and other parts of society."
The Waitangi Tribunal's public inquiries into historical claims are critical to this process. "Evidence is tested, and authoritative reports produced," Judge Williams said. "The Tribunal engages actively with communities over a period of many months, and as a result of this interaction, communities change and move forward. They emerge ready to make hard decisions that will stick. That groundwork is essential if the Crown's Treaty settlements are going to be full and final."
For its part, the Tribunal is committed to innovation and had streamlined its processes. Today, it applies its New Approach method in all district inquiries into historical claims. Inquiry timelines have been halved, to 4-6 years for a complete standard inquiry, and to as little as 3 years for a partial modular inquiry designed to assist claimants and Crown into early settlement negotiations.
"The Tribunal aims for a balanced approach that is practical, efficient and economical," Judge Williams said. "The challenge is always to balance the need for a process that is comprehensive and healing with a recognition that early settlement must be encouraged and facilitated. The Tribunal is now well on track to achieving that balance."
Judge Williams said that the most important factor in progressing the hearing and settlement of Treaty claims is the choices made by the claimants and the Crown. An adversarial approach might extend the finish date for historical inquiries out to the Government's Treaty settlements deadline of 2020. But if some claimants go directly into settlement negotiations and the rest opt for a fast modular process, historical inquiries might be completed as early as 2012. A middle course would see the process completed by about 2015.
Faster progress would depend on a much higher degree of Crown/claimant cooperation. "It would involve a willingness by the Crown to engage constructively in Tribunal inquiries, and even review its practice of contesting the claimants' position on every issue," Judge Williams said. "The Tribunal is ready, willing and able to facilitate settlement negotiation in line with Government and claimant aspirations for all Treaty claims to be settled as soon as possible."