Tina Ngata has been reflecting on recent developments that threaten to derail our progress towards Tiriti justice — and in this piece, originally published on her blog, she focuses on performative gestures by the Crown, and the permissiveness of te ao Māori that allows it.


If the New Zealand government really punches above its weight at anything, it’s performativity.

Over recent decades, the Crown has refined, to a fine art, the practice of performative gestures that don’t really amount to anything transformative for Māori.

This includes reforms which take place in sector silos. These are often under-resourced, and while they use terminology like “mana motuhake”, they always leave ultimate power in the hands of the Crown.

And because they take place in silos, even the most promising reforms inevitably butt up against other sectors which are far from ready to take the same steps. For instance, the health sector reforms will struggle to achieve wellbeing for Māori while Māori are still being disproportionately incarcerated, and dispossessed of our own children, through institutionalised racism within the Ministry of Justice and Oranga Tamariki.

Even when the intention is bold, and benevolent, rarely is it met with the systemic force or resourcing to support the intention reaching its fullest potential.

Performativity also includes giving buildings and public agencies Māori names, while not equitably sharing power or even securing pay parity for the agencies within those same buildings.

It includes targeted resourcing for Māori cultural optics at extravagant launches, for example, using roopu kapa haka or waka hourua, even though the spaces or entities being launched will offer no material benefits or systemic transformation for Māori people.

It includes programmes where the government tries to “solve” racism by investing in cultural promotion and education, but refuses to embed education about racialised privilege, white supremacy, or the harms of colonialism, as found in critical race theory.

As much as we may wish to point the finger solely at the Crown and call all of this yet another example of colonial mal-intent, these empty and part-gestures still depend on Māori endorsement to be effective.

Our own permissiveness — as ceremony holders, as leaders, as performance and visual artists — is critical to the government’s ability to continue with performative acts that at best offer scant progression, and at worst take us off-course entirely.

We can’t overlook the fact that the governmental system we live with — the system which provides the policies that shape our lives and experiences — was born out of an intent to dispossess Māori. That fact has never really been reckoned with by any government, despite this being confirmed by the Crown judiciary body on the matter: the Waitangi Tribunal.

A vital component to combat performativity is understanding the economics of colonialism and democratic capitalism. Global market forces, crafted out of a history of colonial empires, seduce us into thinking that representation and financial success within colonial structures equals liberation and advancement.

Mengzhu Fu and Dr Mahdis Azarmandi write eloquently here from a tangata Tiriti perspective about the way in which cultural platitudes can be a distraction from where energy needs to be directed.

The problem of performativity is particularly relevant to the issue of constitutional transformation. This government understands what that is, understands the discussion, and understands how it relates to Tiriti justice. But it has repeatedly evaded doing anything about it.

Jacinda Ardern, the former PM, predicted constitutional transformation would happen in her lifetime, but not in her government. The current prime minister has yet to comment, but given he is clearly focused on clawing back the centre right drift to National and ACT, it’s doubtful he’ll be an effusive supporter.

So we are left with this government’s constitutional framework, which is an unavoidable source of institutional racism with deadly consequences for Māori. Just read the recommendations of the Maranga Mai report about the impact of colonisation, racism and white supremacy on tangata whenua in Aotearoa New Zealand — in particular, the chapter on health. The scientific data supports what we already know: that racism is an independent predictor of early, avoidable death for racialised minorities, including Māori.

When we delay constitutional transformation, we are condemning those in te ao Māori to higher death rates and a raft of other social and economic outcomes that would never be acceptable for white populations.

Tangata Tiriti must underpin their support of Tiriti justice by centring the importance of constitutional transformation. You can’t pretend to be an ally while tolerating a system that disproportionately kills those you purport to be an ally to.

We all have to be unrelenting and uncompromising in our pursuit of constitutional transformation. We must no longer accept, or enable, performative gestures that distract us from this goal.


Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions.Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.

This is an edited version of a piece first published on Tina’s blog.

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.