Professor Margaret Mutu. (Photo supplied)

The coalition agreement’s focus on reversing advances for Māori has surprised even those who were expecting political regression. The protest we saw this week is just a taste of what’s to come, says Professor Margaret Mutu. Here, she’s in conversation with Siena Yates.


When the coalition agreement came out, I was stunned. I went through it line by line, making sure I’d read it properly, making sure that I wasn’t reading something into it that wasn’t there, and then I talked it through with others as well.

Those of us who’ve been working in this field of Māori rights for a long time realised straight away just how dangerous it is. Then we realised: “Yep, righto. We need to let the people know that this is bad.”

The agreement the parties have made is in breach of so many international laws, but it’s also just in breach of common humanity. I hope that people understand the magnitude of what they’re doing. They’re stripping us of fundamental human rights that we’ve struggled over the past 50 years to take small steps towards.

I think a lot of people don’t realise that Māori human rights aren’t recognised in this country the way they were supposed to be. If we look at it through an ao Māori lens and what was agreed to in Te Tiriti, our property isn’t properly protected, our rights to medical care, education, and housing aren’t properly protected — there’s a whole heap of things. And where you see it all playing out, of course, is in the statistics.

This government wants to strip away the very few rights we’ve managed to secure, and there are no fetters on them to stop that happening. What we all need to do with this agreement is take a step back and understand the power assertion that it represents.

No government in this country has ever formally recognised He Whakaputanga or Te Tiriti as our constitutional baseline. But neither have they put in place an explicit constitution to replace those things. We’re one of the very few western countries in the world that doesn’t have a recognised written constitution. What a constitution does is lay down pretty basic rules that everyone agrees to — which inevitably involves human rights — that you can’t go outside of.

Without a constitution, there is nothing in place to tell the government: “No, there are certain things you just cannot do.” It leaves the government of the day free to do whatever they like. So effectively, what we have in this country is a dictatorship — and for Māori, that’s where one partner to the Treaty dictates all terms of interaction to the other party. It’s just the exact opposite of this “one law for all” idea that’s being touted. Instead, what we have is “our law for you”.

Essentially, what’s signalled in the two coalition agreements is that there’s nothing stopping the government doing whatever they want to do in relation to Māori — and this government is going to take full advantage of that.

That sense of entitlement goes right back to when Hobson seriously breached the Treaty and issued his proclamation on May 21, 1840. He wanted to take over the country. He wanted to dispossess Māori. And so he didn’t talk to any Māori about his plans — he just said, in effect, “Because I say so, Britain’s now taken over this country, and we’re going to do it however we want.”

And nothing has changed since then. Pākehā settlers wanted the land and the resources and power in this country, all of which Māori held, and they knew that if they had constitutional fetters on them, they wouldn’t be able to do that. So they just went ahead and took what they wanted, and then developed laws to codify those actions. Our history has rolled on as if this is an acceptable norm, but it’s not. It’s, in fact, a gross violation of most international rules around this sort of thing.

When I look at what’s going on in Gaza, I wonder how many of our people will compare what’s happening there to what’s happened here. It’s a whole lot more violent, more concentrated up there, but it’s operating on the same principles: dehumanising, colonising, dispossessing, and wiping out a people’s rights and culture.

In our case, the British started trying to have a go at us in the 1840s to get us to give up our lands in the north, but they didn’t know the terrain and they just lost hand over fist. Then, 20 years later, they brought in troops from Britain to do the same thing down in Tainui, in Taranaki, in Tauranga Moana. Those were gross atrocities that they committed but they hid them and developed amnesia about what they’d done. So, if you ask a lot of Pākehā these days, they have no idea that the sorts of things happening in Gaza right now were done here in this country.

There has been a complete denial of the history of this country. Every time Māori try to mention that, we get absolutely vilified. The Waitangi Tribunal was set up in the 1970s to get the younger generation — my generation — off the streets because we were marching and protesting and attracting attention that was embarrassing for the government.

The Tribunal process took that public action and put it into a courtroom and then in marae, and people couldn’t see it. They’ve written hundreds of reports detailing how we were dispossessed — and how we continue to be dispossessed.

Our people knew what was happening to us, but the rest of the country didn’t. We dissected it all on our marae, at our big decolonisation wānanga, in our kura kaupapa Māori and wharekura. All the knowledge that was forcibly suppressed by law has bubbled back up to the surface. And our people now, today, are far better informed. And we will not allow ourselves to be silenced.

I think this new government will show our people that we can’t allow breaches of basic human rights to carry on. It will show us that the only way we’re going to stop that happening is through constitutional transformation. That is the mechanism for throwing off the gross oppression of colonisation. It’s by informing ourselves, organising ourselves, and working towards a constitutional basis for this country that doesn’t allow the sort of horrible, grossly obnoxious behaviour that we’re currently seeing.

So, the coalition agreements are a catalyst for us to come out and say: “No more.” And this time, we have the knowledge, the understanding, and the capability to organise ourselves in a way where we can demand those changes.

That’s why I’m actually very positive about what they’ve done, especially when I’m talking to the rangatahi who are ready to get on and do it. They’ve come through kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, wharekura, and their minds aren’t tied up in the horrible knots of colonisation. For them, it’s really clear. I’m thinking, hell, maybe we can just get on and do what Moana Jackson kept telling us to do.

This is the ideal opportunity to get on and take the practical steps to get the work of constitutional transformation underway. Our people know what’s required if we want to make our own decisions about our own lives, and we’re not going to be stopped. Plus, we’ve got a lot of Pākehā realising the benefits of that to the whole community, and they’re coming in too.

Something that gave me quite a bit of hope a couple of weeks ago was the opinion poll run by the Human Rights Commission. It asked New Zealanders how they thought the Treaty should be dealt with. More than 70 percent said that it has to be a conversation between Māori and Pākehā. It’s not something that can be driven by politicians or the government alone. That was quite something, to me, because I’ve never been able to get an accurate handle on the level of support that’s out there.

A huge number of Pākehā groups have taken the time to find out what knowledge is out there. Some of them keep asking: “Can you please run seminars for us? Can you please tell us about this? We don’t know this stuff.” So it’s not just Māori wanting a different way forward, even though sometimes it can feel that way.

We’re in a place now where we have a whole lot more expertise within Māoridom. We have a lot more resources, especially in some of the iwi, and we’ll use them. We’re no longer the poor, downtrodden people that they could run amok over. We’re not in that space anymore.

We’ll fight them in the courts. We’ll fight them in the streets, in the media, on social media, on every platform we can access. If the opportunity comes, we’ll take it. And you know how creative we can be.

I look at all the examples around the country of the strides and changes we’ve made — and suddenly this government wants to take it all away? Nah. It’s not going to happen. Because our people are already on the journey, and they’re not about to be stopped.


Professor Margaret Mutu (Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa and Ngāti Whātua) is Professor of Māori Studies at the University of Auckland. For the past two decades, Margaret has chaired Te Rūnanga-ā-Iwi o Ngāti Kahu. In that role, she represents Ngāti Kahu on the National Iwi Chairs Forum where she chairs Te Pou Tikanga, the Aotearoa Independent Monitoring Mechanism, which monitors New Zealand’s compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Matike Mai Aotearoa — the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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