The Crown has rarely shown much enthusiasm for, or understanding of, the tino rangatiratanga for Māori that it signed up to in 1840. And one issue where the Crown has awarded itself all the authority, generation after generation, has been with immigration. 

From time to time, it has touched on the question of how much say Māori should have. And, this month, there’s been a report from the New Zealand Productivity Commission, a Crown entity that has the job of telling the government how it can improve Aotearoa’s productivity, which seems to finally recognise the existence of  “Māori interests”. 

The report asks: “How could the Treaty of Waitangi interest in immigration policy be best reflected in new policies and institutions?”

Dr Arama Rata, a researcher for WERO (Working to End Racial Oppression) and a steering group member of New Zealand Alternative, takes a look at that question.


Last week, the New Zealand Productivity Commission released preliminary findings and recommendations from their inquiry into immigration settings. 

As well as identifying long overdue changes required to address migrant exploitation — clearer, more certain pathways to residency, and removing visa conditions that tie migrants to their employers, for example — the report recognises “Māori interests” in immigration, and asks: “How could the Treaty of Waitangi interest in immigration policy be best reflected in new policies and institutions?”

In an interview with RNZ, Ganesh Nana, the chair of the Productivity Commission, noted that immigration policy has so far remained “silent on the treaty”. He described the absence of the Treaty in immigration decision-making as “curious”, and added: “It’s quite clear that Māori should be at that table.” 

So what relevance does the Treaty hold in relation to immigration? How “curious” is it that Māori have been left out of immigration decision-making? And how should Māori respond if an invitation is extended to take a seat “at that table”?

The relevance of Te Tiriti to immigration

As noted in the Commission’s report, the Treaty of Waitangi is our first immigration policy document. The preamble explicitly connects the Treaty to immigration, establishing the need for a treaty as, “he tokomaha ke nga tangata o tona iwi kua noho ki tenei wenua, a e haere mai nei” (a great number of [the Queen’s] people have settled in this country, and others will come).

Further, Article 2 of Te Tiriti recognises the tino rangatiratanga (a term for absolute authority that encompasses sovereignty and independence) of Māori over their lands, villages, and all that is held precious.

The repeated, vague reference to Māori or Treaty “interests” in the Commission’s report suggests three things.

Firstly, that the relevance of the Treaty to immigration is being viewed through the narrow lens of property interests, which form the basis of the western legal framework, rather than whakapapa, or relationships, that are central to tikanga Māori. 

Secondly, that the Commission is unsure of what, precisely, those interests are.

And thirdly, that the Commission is reluctant to acknowledge tino rangatiratanga as encompassing control over immigration (and foreign policy more broadly).

While the report cites legal advice describing the relevance of tino rangatiratanga to immigration decision-making, the Commission’s failure to understand this term in the context of Te Tiriti is exposed when it asserts that the Treaty constituted a transfer of rangatiratangafrom Māori to the Crown.

The “curious” absence of the Treaty in immigration decision-making

The absence of the Treaty in immigration legislation seems less “curious” when the function of border regimes is considered. In New Zealand, as in other settler colonies, mass immigration was used to establish a White-settler garrison to defend invaded Indigenous territories and share in the spoils of conquest.

In the context of global imperialism, militarised borders play a central role in preventing people in oppressed nations from accessing the wealth, power and privilege accumulated in the core capitalist nations (the US, western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) through violently enforced unequal exchange.

The function of treaties between colonial administrations and Indigenous peoples also deserves our attention here. Throughout the colonised world, as is the case here, intentionally misleading treaties were signed with Indigenous peoples that allude to a respectful relationship in the Indigenous language but which transfer sovereignty or require an exclusive relationship in the language of the coloniser. 

To be clear, just as there’s no transfer of tino rangatiratanga, there’s nothing in Te Tiriti that would prevent hapū Māori from controlling their own borders, from directing their own foreign policy, or from entering into new international treaties.

With these considerations brought to the fore, we see it’s no accident that the Treaty is absent from immigration decision-making. 

To affirm the right of Māori to control immigration (and foreign policy more broadly) would be to contradict the Crown’s intentions in signing what was, in their view, an exclusive treaty with hapū Māori, bringing Māori lands and peoples under Crown control. 

Limited recognition of Māori property interests can be accommodated by the settler state’s presumption of unilateral sovereignty. Affirming tino rangatiratanga, or Māori independence, can not.

Should Māori take a seat at the immigration decision-making table?

In recent years, Māori have asserted their right to be included in immigration decision-making.

The New Zealand Productivity Commission’s report put forward options to address this challenge, from amending the Immigration Act to include a Treaty clause, to introducing a co-governance model, “where the Crown and Māori would jointly agree priorities and objectives.” 

However, the report implies Māori interests in immigration are diluted by the “range of views about immigration within Māoridom”, and proposes token recognition: “. . . a Treaty clause could be valued in its own right as an acknowledgement of mana”.

It’s important to identify the context within which these suggestions are being put forward. The Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 ushered in a new era of neo-colonialism, in which limited expressions of Māori authority now take the form of Crown-mandated tribal governance entities. 

The politics of recognition and reconciliation developed in postcolonial contexts have been imported to settler colonies where no such transformational redistribution of power and resources has occurred. 

Consultation with Indigenous peoples in settler-colonial contexts can lead to progressive reform. Yet the co-option of Indigenous peoples into official processes legitimises rather than challenges the presumed sovereignty of the settler state.

By taking a seat at the immigration decision-making table, Māori could achieve progressive reform. A promise to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi could be included in the citizenship oath. Our whakapapa relationships across Te Moana nui a Kiwa could be better reflected in the immigration system. 

But at what cost?

Posing a series of critical questions in her book Mohawk Interruptus, Audra Simpson invites us to explore the potent and productive qualities of refusal:

What does it mean to refuse . . . a gift . . .? What does it mean to say no to these things, or to wait until your terms have been met for agreement, for a reversal of recognition, or a conferral of rights? 

What happens when we refuse what all (presumably) “sensible” people perceive as good things? 

What does this refusal do to politics, to sense, to reason? When we add Indigenous peoples to this question, the assumptions and the histories that structure what is perceived to be “good” . . . shift and stand in stark relief. 

The positions assumed by people who refuse “gifts” may seem reasoned, sensible, and in fact deeply correct.

In saying “no” to a Crown offer to be co-opted into the violent, imperialist border regime, what might we be saying “yes” to? What colonial identity divisions could be transcended? What relational possibilities could open? What solidarities could strengthen? And what revolutionary potentials could be birthed?

Saying “no” would not preclude us from asserting our rights in relation to immigration, trade deals, international relations, and other aspects of foreign policy. 

But rather than allowing the state to accommodate our “cultural difference”, Dene scholar Glen Coulthard (in the intellectual tradition of Frantz Fanon) encourages us to foster the political forces not only of refusal but also of resentment: to resist assimilation into violent structures and look instead to ourselves for recognition and validation, so that we might imagine tino rangatiratanga on our own terms, in accordance with our own tikanga.

Rangatiratanga over borders is being embodied by iwi in Te Tairāwhiti, Te Tai Tokerau and Taranaki, where checkpoints to protect communities from the spread of Covid-19 were put in place, and statements discouraging travel to the East Cape and the Far North have been issued.

In upholding tino rangatiratanga in accordance with our tikanga, the question is not whether Māori should take a seat at the Crown’s decision-making table, but whether (or not) the Crown should be welcomed onto our marae.


Dr Arama Rata belongs to Ngāruahine, Taranaki, and Ngāti Maniapoto. She is research theme leader for WERO (Working to End Racial Oppression), and a steering group member for progressive foreign policy think tank New Zealand Alternative.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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