No amount of petty politicking or typo-riddled coalition agreements will stop the ongoing quest for tino rangatiratanga, writes Jamie Tahana.
There’s a clip that’s been doing the rounds on Instagram these last couple of weeks. It shows the late Moana Jackson, in his calm and measured way, gently shaping his words into the thrust of a taiaha, cutting through the confusion and getting to the heart of the matter, as he so often did.
Hair combed back in signature style, he’s sitting on the blue set of TVNZ’s Marae programme, in a debate that featured the National Party’s then Māori affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee.
“The fact is that under the Treaty there are rights — pre-existing rights — which were reaffirmed. The need which Māori now have often arose out of the breach of those rights,” Matua Moana said. “So to address Māori need, you’re actually recognising that certain rights have been breached.
“It seems to me to be quite wrong to therefore call the addressing of need based on a breach of rights as a special privilege. It’s also wrong because it misinterprets our history, where the taking of power, the taking of land from Māori, actually resulted in the privileging of Pākehā. The establishment of Pākehā institutions of power and Pākehā wealth was a privileging done at the expense of Māori.”
The video was from 2005, when Pākehā New Zealand was once again in the grip of a panic about Māori — the type of panic that seems to surge through these islands with the regularity of a winter’s cold, coughing up dark hysterias and racist bile that lingers in the deep recesses.
The then Labour government had seized the foreshore and seabed, sparking the biggest protest in a generation, and the opposition leader Don Brash had just given his infamous Orewa speech. In that gloves-off attack against so-called Māori “privilege”, Brash railed against the “principles” of the Treaty, a so-called “grievance industry”, and the “fateful decision” to have the Waitangi Tribunal empowered to address claims dating back to 1840.
It all seems so familiar — because, two decades on, here we are again.
Reading the new government’s coalition agreements alongside the Orewa speech, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters are fulfilling Brash’s Orewa wishlist.
The agreements between National, Act, and New Zealand First, with their attempt to once again redefine Te Tiriti, to erase co-governance, and to disestablish Te Aka Whai Ora (the Māori Health Authority), among other policies, is torrid enough.
But it comes with added petty attacks. Like the targeted stab at Auckland University’s Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (with no mention of any supposed unfairness in the Rural Admission Scheme: equity for some, not others). The bamboozling decision to repeal the government’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And its stated aim to minimise the use of te reo Māori in the public service.
The coalition agreements dedicate so much space to undoing Māori policies that it’s hard to read them as anything but a vindictive and petulant attack.
But we’ve been here before.
Māori once again find ourselves in the same tired debate, having to once more justify our existence to a majority that has deemed progress as having gone too far. Politicians are once again wishing away the country’s founding document with tiresome arguments about universality, one-peopleism and all the other euphemisms for the advantages enjoyed by those whom Ranginui Walker once described as the “people who are seen to matter most”.
Day in and day out, we again hear cliched allegations of “Māori privilege” — as if we’re exempted from the cost of living crisis, receiving gold-plated hospital care, and commuting in dedicated tangata whenua traffic lanes.
Instead, our privileges are a poorer quality of education, a life of entrenched health disparities, more likelihood of living in poverty, and a greater chance of being profiled or imprisoned. At the end of this privileged life, we get the added privilege of dying seven years younger. All of these are disparities, “unconscious biases” and flaws that the Crown has “acknowledged”, but seems determined to do little about.
“We’re done with explaining our right to exist,” wrote the doctor and author, Emma Wehipeihana, in a column last week. “Performing our trauma to make people care is the most peculiar form of storytelling. I don’t want to talk about deficits that aren’t our fault.
“Unfortunately, it’s the only story that we’re able to tell, because we keep getting asked again and again to justify our ‘privilege’,” she wrote for The Spinoff.
Everything in this world seems to run in cycles, and attacks on Te Tiriti, language and our right to exist are seemingly no different. Just like the migration of the inanga, their lives set to the clockwork of the moon as they squirm their way from the depths of the sea through the braids of the rivers, the lazy reach of politicians towards anti-Māori sentiment seems to run in a similar cycle of predictability.
This has been happening from the moment Te Tiriti was first signed in February 1840. Brash loved to quote Governor Hobson’s words of “he iwi tahi tatou”, yet those words were immediately forgotten as the Crown went about rapaciously acquiring land for a settler colony.
When the ink had barely dried on the Treaty’s parchment, “he iwi tahi tātou” became gunboats and cannons working their way down the islands, a partner waging war on iwi and hapū in an aggressive consolidation of power.
Two decades later, “he iwi tahi tātou” manifested in the siege and burning of the pacifist settlement at Parihaka. It then manifested in policies and practices to strip our land and erase our practices and beliefs — and in our depictions as lesser breeds soon to be supplanted by a supposedly superior race.
“He iwi tahi tātou” emerged in the violence meted out to our children to erase their language, or their removal into the torture of state care. When a Māori Battalion was raised for World War II, “he iwi tahi tātou” meant returning members weren’t allowed into the same pubs as their Pākehā brothers, or were excluded from pension and land schemes for veterans.
It emerged in the foreshore and seabed, and the brazen move to legislate away Māori rights to seek clarification through the courts. It came through in the myths we taught ourselves about our country, an innocent and benevolent amble towards nationhood with a few mistakes and misunderstandings, rather than a violent subordination of an Indigenous people.
When David Seymour speaks of the Treaty being reshaped and redefined away from what was signed in 1840, he’s not entirely wrong, for the Crown has always tried to ignore, twist, redefine and obfuscate the commitments it signed with rangatira.
From the self-serving declaration of the South Island as terra nullius (nobody’s land) for which Te Tiriti didn’t apply, to the storage of the parchments in a damp basement to be nibbled by rats. The Crown ignored the Treaty, claiming it irrelevant, most famously by Chief Justice Prendergast when he declared the Treaty a “simple nullity” signed by “primitive barbarians.”
At a “Festival of Empire” held at London’s Crystal Palace in 1911, the Treaty was performatively redefined by the settler government as the “free gift of a free people.”
At its centenary in 1940, Apirana Ngata famously spoke of the unfulfilled promises — “land lost, culture scattered” — but the settler government chose to use it as the basis for its own storytelling project. As the Waitangi Tribunal formed and matured, the principles began to develop, though accepted only in a way that was palatable to the Crown.
Taken at face value, there are genuine conversations to be had on many of the points raised by the new government. There are many in te ao Māori who would love to move away from the principles of the Treaty, towards the text of Te Tiriti and the commitment to tino rangatiratanga it actually contains. How we move away from the disempowering “principles” towards a realisation of tino rangatiratanga is a courageous and honest conversation the country desperately needs.
Te reo Māori names for government departments is another example. Why does a ministry that disproportionately seizes Māori children from their whānau bear the name Oranga Tamariki? Why are police officers who are profiling Māori at disproportionate rates driving our streets in cars labelled “Pirihimana”? And, after the cowardly pre-emptive act of its chief executive to remove te reo from briefings, why will Manatū Aorere (MFAT) be repealing the country’s commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? (It will probably open with a mihi in doing so.)
But with the malevolent light the coalition government has already cast, and the dog whistles it has pandered to, it’s hard to believe genuine kōrero is what it’s looking for. Instead, it seems intent on undoing any attempt to empower Māori, wishing away the very Treaty that forms the foundation of the nation we all share today.
But while the government’s interpretation of the Treaty may have been twisted and turned over generations, for te ao Māori, there’s been one consistent thread: that rangatira signed Te Tiriti as a source of unity, and that its promises must be honoured.
As Māori, our adaptations have never meant subordination but an ongoing quest for rangatiratanga that no amount of petty politics can unbind.
In fact, iwi and hapū have always tried to ensure a respectful and equal constitutional relationship with the Crown as promised in the Treaty. It started with the floods of letters our tūpuna wrote through the late 19th century, or the kuia and kaumātua who bankrupted themselves to plead to the Native Land Court.
It was held within our songs and lamentations in the quiet of the marae, as the land around was carved away. And it continued when Tāwhiao and other rangatira sailed to London, seeking audiences with Queen Victoria to call for Te Tiriti to be honoured.
Whether it was the establishment of Kotahitanga or the Kiingitanga, the gatherings at Kohimarama, or the first sitting of the Māori parliament at Waipatu, or even the Māori Council of the mid-20th century, for nearly 200 years, Māori have consistently fought for Te Tiriti to be honoured.
It continued when Syd Jackson and Hana Te Hemara rallied at Waitangi, calling the Treaty a fraud (“They haven’t honoured the whole bloody thing,” Syd said) — and when Dame Whina Cooper planted one foot in front of the other from Te Hāpua, marching down the spine of Te Ika a Māui. It continued when Joe Hawke set up camp on Bastion Point, staring down the lines of hundreds of police; and when Tuaiwa Rickard pitched a flag in Raglan, defending what she called “an honourable document”.
There are thousands of examples of this consistent strand right down the country, big and small, weaving together a raranga of resistance.
It was seen when our elders gathered in the late 1970s, determined to revive our language, forming kōhanga reo in the process. And in the 1980s, when kura opened across the country. We see this generation taking leadership now, strengthened by these generational strands of struggle, now bound as strong as those that held together our waka as they navigated the greatest ocean in the world, weathering storms far greater than a coalition government, through winds more ferocious than any politician’s dog whistle.
As desperately as some may want to wish away the Treaty, it has been the enduring thread that has defined our often uncomfortable amble towards a genuinely multicultural nation, upholding its rights and promises.
Our progress towards reclaiming rangatiratanga has too often come in spite of, not because of, the Crown, and no typo-riddled coalition agreements will come close to erasing the steps our people have taken.
It’s odd to hear calls for a national conversation when that conversation has been happening among our people for generations.
What Christopher Luxon confronts now, as have all the politicians before him who’ve capitalised on seasonal bouts of Māori hysteria, is a generation of Māori strong in their identity, who won’t let progress slip without a fight.
Because as long as our mountains stand, our rivers flow, and our seas roar, tangata whenua will never go away, nor will they relent on the struggle without end.
There is another comment that’s been circulating on Instagram this past couple of weeks. This one by Tāme Iti: “Bring it on.”
Jamie Tahana (Ngāti Pikiao/Ngāti Makino/Tapuika) is a journalist and broadcaster who has worked in both Aotearoa and the Pacific. He grew up between his Dutch mother in the Hutt and his Te Arawa dad in Rotorua, going on to qualify with a master’s degree at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University. He was Māori news editor at RNZ until May 2023, when he left for his OE.
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