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The Treaty Debate: What People Are Getting Wrong


By Tim Wilson, Executive Director, Maxim Institute*

Many ominous omens filled the air before this year’s Waitangi celebrations. Commentators were prophesying trouble. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was booed in the morning. A hikoi approached, the leaders of which had been unable to promise that violence wouldn’t occur. And then… And then…

Frustratingly for those who value polarisation—tensions “flatlined”—according to one headline… unless you were David Seymour. To his credit, he was there in person. Chris Luxon spoke uncontroversially. Indeed, the Waitangi Trust Chair, Pita Tipene, summarised things: “I think there has been progress. It may be glacial, in saying that glaciers are quite fast these days, but I think there has been some progress.”

The media quickly turned to King Charles and cancer. What’s really happening? Did we skirt the precipice of an abyss? Or did we get interested in something else?

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The issue is contentious, no question, for both Māori and Pakeha. Chris Hipkins admitted at Ratana that Labour hadn’t brought along non-Māori. But I understand there’s frustration as well within te ao Māori (the Māori world) with the lack of progress under the previous Government. So, no one’s overjoyed.

Let’s also keep in mind that we don’t actually trust many of the people giving us information in and around the Treaty. A recent poll done for the Human Rights Commission, as disseminated by The Facts, finds that trust of MPs to explain the Treaty accurately is a mere 7%. For media, it’s 6%, and political parties 4%. The big winner? Our National Library, with 45%, which is still less than half of us.

Moreover, it’s a dispute; culturally, we don’t tend to like those things here. Because we’re a small country, our impulse is to suppress rather than exacerbate dissent. For example, try saying something unkind about the Barbie movie at Christmas dinner. We prefer fairness. Compare that to the US, which values freedom, often at the expense of fairness.

As someone who’s lived both in the US and New Zealand, there’s a clear difference between the way issues of racial inequity are transacted in public. Over there, they feel like a fight between two different families. Here, it’s more like an argument within a family.

Sure, culture plays a part, but perhaps intermarriage does too. Marriage rates between Māori and non-Māori have historically been high. This leads to intercultural mixing, which creates an interesting situation. As one observer notes, “Although the autonomy and incommensurability of cultures is asserted often enough, cultures are actually leaky vessels, created, renewed and transformed in endless contact with others.”

Perhaps this explains Sir Bill English’s optimism around the Treaty: “… we keep finding ways of resolving or reducing those tensions.”

The issue is baggy, fraught, and messy. Beware of anyone who offers blinding clarity… or a narrative outside a family dispute. In the words of Tame Iti: “History has woven us together. We are the basket, the kete, that holds the future.” Let’s not unravel the basket.

*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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