“Far from trying to reconcile different understandings of the Treaty, their text ignores or distorts the original promises. This is disrespectful, and arrogant.” — Dame Anne Salmond on Act’s proposed Treaty referendum. (Photo: Auckland University)

In his kōrero with Dale Husband last week, Act leader David Seymour cited Dame Anne Salmond’s work as informing his views on the Treaty — and, by implication, the referendum he’s pursuing as part of a coalition agreement. Here, in a piece first published in Newsroom and republished with permission, Dame Anne sets the record straight.


David Seymour has been citing my work to imply that I support Act’s attempts to rewrite Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I do not, for the following reasons.

When Te Tiriti was debated and signed in Waitangi and elsewhere, it was debated and signed in te reo. In order to understand the promises that the rangatira and Queen Victoria exchanged, it is the text in te reo, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, that is the most authoritative record.

In 1840, te reo was the dominant language, and English was spoken by a relatively small minority of the population, although some people were bilingual. Today, the situation is reversed; and to make matters more difficult, both te reo and New Zealand English have changed quite a bit over the past 200 years.

In 2023, relatively few New Zealanders can read Te Tiriti in the original. Most lawyers, politicians, scholars and citizens have to rely on the English text, the Treaty of Waitangi, and/or translations of Te Tiriti into English. This is understandable, but it can be very misleading.

Where the languages reflect very different understandings of the world (as was the case with te reo and English in 1840), there will always be room for debate about different translations, but that needs to be informed and respectful.

In the case of the Treaty, the key concepts in the English text — “sovereignty” in Article 1, “property” in Article 2, and “the rights and privileges of British citizens” in Article 3; and the parallel concepts in Te Tiriti — “kawanatanga” in Ture 1, “tino rangatiratanga” in Ture 2, and “nga tikanga rite tahi” in Ture 3, had very different meanings and practical implications.

Over the past 50 years, many distinguished scholars, te reo experts, lawyers and decision-makers have grappled with these differences, and tried to reconcile them. Now, however, Act proposes to sweep all this aside, by rewriting the Treaty of Waitangi from scratch. Unfortunately, however, their proposed “Principles” of the Treaty bear almost no resemblance to the original document.

Far from trying to reconcile different understandings of the Treaty, their text ignores or distorts the original promises. This is disrespectful, and arrogant. For a party that won just 8.6 percent of the vote in the recent election to attempt to rewrite a pact that involves Queen Victoria and her descendants, as well as the rangatira and theirs, is presumptuous in the extreme.

In these times of crisis, a new government will be assessed on its ability to bring New Zealanders together. Act’s proposed approach to Te Tiriti will do the opposite. I agree with Helen Clark that it would “rip us down the middle”, and with Jim Bolger that it’s a “bloody stupid” idea.


Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland, and 2013 New Zealander of the Year. This piece first appeared in Newsroom and is republished here with permission.

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