(Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams)

Moea Armstrong is a member of the Pākehā Tiriti education group Network Waitangi Whangārei, which co-published Ngāpuhi Speaks. Here she sets out why Act’s proposed referendum on Treaty principles is already irrelevant.


There’s something missing in the commentary about Act’s proposed referendum on the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. It’s what happened on November 14, 2014, almost nine years ago.

On that day, the Waitangi Tribunal was assembled on the grounds of Waitangi’s Te Tii marae, at Tou Rangatira, where the pou stand in an arc. Nelson Mandela would often quote the saying that the arc of history bends towards justice, and for those of us there on that beautiful spring day, it seemed he was right.

In a huge marquee full of Ngāpuhi claimant groups and their lawyers, Crown Law, Tribunal members, and those drawn to the historic occasion for a multitude of reasons, a Tribunal staff member stood to address the crowd.

“It has fallen to me,” she said, “to announce the result of the Tribunal’s deliberations.” She was referring to the report on Stage I of the Ngāpuhi WAI 1040 claim, centred solely on the meaning of He Whakaputanga (the Declaration of Independence) and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“The Tribunal has found that, in signing Te Tiriti on February 6, 1840, Ngāpuhi did not cede their sovereignty.”

At that point, she stopped. It wasn’t as though the crowd erupted vocally, but it felt to me as if a palpable, almost physical force was unleashed and was coursing through the assembly like lightning.

No one had seen it coming. After all, the Tribunal is an agency of the Crown.

It was a profoundly powerful moment. It was what many had worked decades for, yearned for, and yet, on that day, had dared not hope for. It was a rare moment of truth, when the wrongdoer admits that they were wrong — and admits to gaslighting Māori for almost two centuries by insisting that they had voluntarily passed their authority, their tino rangatiratanga, to the UK.

The pure joy of that day has stayed with me: the clarity, the people, the oratory, the hākari, and the relief. I imagined an end to my work as a Tiriti educator — and to the repetition of history, of comparing the two texts, of exploring the minds and motives of the Whig regimes, Te Whakaminenga, James Stephens of the Colonial Office, Te Kemara, Hobson, Panakareao, Williams, Hone Heke, Kawiti, and the rest.

I was about to get a life.

After 39 years of the Tribunal’s work, our conflicted wee country had finally, officially, researched the issue thoroughly and would now be able to go forward on the same page, literally. It was still going to be a struggle to honour Te Tiriti, but the obfuscation of translation and iteration issues was behind us. The honest, constructive work of nation-building was ahead — and the vision of Te Tiriti made real, with peaceful cultural relations and prosperity for all, would be realised.

On the way home, exuberant with hope, I tuned in to Radio New Zealand to see what the country had made of this momentous day — which, surely, would be bound to be celebrated as a new public holiday.

Chris Finlayson, who was then Minister of Treaty Settlements, was being interviewed. He said nothing would change.

“All New Zealanders can go to bed tonight and rest easy in the knowledge that when they wake up in the morning the Queen will still reign over us, and the government will still rule us.”

He was speaking to the anxiety of unknowing and unsettled settlers who on some level know in our bellies that most of the country is land stolen from Māori, and that this Pacific Island nation was not, and is not, peacefully settled by mutual agreement. I don’t think he could’ve said that directly to his Māori friends.

But he was right. Nothing did change. The New Zealand Herald ran an editorial saying that this was unexpected, that we would need to have a national conversation about this because most of us thought Māori had ceded their sovereignty. Then it disappeared from the news.

Back in 1975, when the Treaty of Waitangi Act set up the Waitangi Tribunal, the Tribunal members were expected to take into account both the English and reo Māori texts. Because the texts are contradictory, they should’ve refused the task. Or perhaps made it their first job to settle the issue.

Instead, they decided to invent new concepts which were a mash-up of the two texts, and called them “principles”. It was the first of no fewer than five different sets of principles that all came from the Crown side of the fence.

Māori have consistently stuck to the articles of Te Tiriti, the text in te reo Māori signed by Hobson and their tūpuna.

The judicial system did its best to cope with the dysfunction, but ultimately added to it with their own principles. And despite the best of intentions, generations of mainstream social workers, health workers, and educators who were taught the “partnership, protection, and participation” principles have made little impact on the culture of poverty in which Māori are disproportionately represented.

In November 2014, the Tribunal abandoned the great pretence that the English text had legitimacy. Therefore, there was no longer a need for “Treaty principles”. The six weeks of evidence heard in 2010 had borne a sweet fruit. (In any event, Ned Fletcher’s new research suggests that the UK’s intent and understanding of the English text at the time was much closer to the Māori meaning than we thought.)

The difficulty then, as now, is for politicians to accept that their assumed authority over Māori stems not from a voluntary treaty of cession but was taken by cultural arrogance, warfare, and overwhelming immigration.

I don’t believe we have anything to fear by facing the truth. Rather, we have everything to gain. We can do this. A good start would be for politicians and communities to consider and respond to the options in the Matike Mai report commissioned by the Iwi Chairs Forum.

The Tribunal didn’t include any recommendations in its 2014 report, saving these for the Ngāpuhi Stage 2 report which will be presented at Waitangi on December 9. It’s probably safe to assume that it’s unlikely the Tribunal will recommend a national binary referendum on five sets of random principles, whose use-by date was nine years ago.

Politicians who are serious about finding a way toward a peaceful, Tiriti-based, multi-ethnic future Aotearoa, could look at some recommendations we now have, as well as Matike Mai.

In 2009, Ngāpuhi kaumātua concerned at the Crown’s record of ignoring Tribunal reports, commissioned an independent report on the hearings. A panel of two Pākehā and two Māori produced its report in 2012, called Ngāpuhi Speaks. It has sold more than 6,000 copies and is a university textbook. And it has specific, achievable recommendations for the Crown, for Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu, the people of Aotearoa, the news media, and for the head of state (King Charles).

It’s a clear path to unity. Let’s choose that.


Moea Armstrong has been a member of Pākehā Tiriti education group Network Waitangi Whangārei, which is a co-publisher of Ngāpuhi Speaks, since 1990. She lives in Onerahirahi, among the highest concentration of Pākehā Tiriti workers in Aotearoa. Her father, the son of a World War One conscientious objector, took his friend Dick Scott to Parihaka in the 1950s. Moved by their story, he gave his last born an ingoa Māori.

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