Chris Finlayson (Photo: Nicola Edmonds)

Chris Finlayson is a Wellington barrister who was National’s Attorney-General and Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations from 2008 to 2017. In that time, he guided through 59 Treaty settlements. Way more than any other has managed.

As a boy, he went to St Patrick’s College in Wellington, and then did a BA (in Latin and French) as well as an LLM at Victoria University. As a lawyer, he played a part in Ngāi Tahu’s successful battle with the Crown to nail their 1997 Treaty settlement.

His book Yes Ministerwhich has just been published, presents a number of his reflections on his political life. And here is an excerpt in which he’s explaining his reservations about the introduction next year of the national history curriculum.


I want to refer to concerns about the new education curriculum, which when introduced in 2023 will place much greater emphasis on the teaching of New Zealand history.

When I was studying history in my last few years of secondary school, we focused on the United States between the wars and the Stuart kings in the seventeenth century, including the English Civil War.

I found both areas interesting, but wonder whether learning about Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover was more important than learning about, for example, the New Zealand Wars. Teaching more New Zealand history can only be a good thing.

When I was minister for Treaty of Waitangi negotiations, I was always apologising for wrongs that had been committed by the Crown since 6 February 1840. Every deed of settlement contains an acknowledgements section that sets out the history of the inter­action between the Crown and the settling iwi.

It also includes a formal apology by the Crown for actions that are said to breach the Treaty of Waitangi and its principles. It is very important to note that these sections of settlements are not pro forma and nor are they rushed.

They are the subject of very careful analysis by highly qualified iwi and Crown historians, and their contents are the subject of intense debate and negotiation. As a matter of principle, it is extremely important that the Crown apologises for real, not imagined, breaches.

One of the things that struck me in my time as a minister is that many historical matters seem to have been either suppressed or ignored in this country. This was especially the case in Taranaki.

The Parihaka negotiations in 2014–17 in particular revealed some very disturbing facts that even now I think are generally unknown in New Zealand. The raid on Parihaka in 1881 was probably the worst incident in our post-1840 history, yet for many years the truth was suppressed or ignored.

It is as though the general community knew that wrongs had happened but preferred to sweep these under the carpet. The negotiations over the Parihaka apology were probably the most intense in which I was involved, and it was the first time that the Crown actually apologised for rape.

I was distressed after the ceremony when I received a number of most unpleasant emails and letters complaining that I had no right to apologise for rape and demanding evidence that it had happened.

Another example is the 2014 Ngāi Tūhoe settlement, including the disestablishment of Urewera National Park and the recognition of Te Urewera as a legal identity. Very few people knew the facts and simply assumed that Māori protesting in the national park were being disagreeable and criminal. They did not realise that Premier Richard Seddon’s government entered into an arrangement with Tūhoe in 1896 that gave Tūhoe limited autonomy over Te Urewera, with a majority Tūhoe commission set up to make decisions about land sales.

The legislation relating to the commission was then undermined over the next two or three decades and unilaterally repealed in 1923 without the consent of Tūhoe. Adding insult to injury, a national park was then created in 1954, again with no consultation with Tūhoe. That is why there was such a need for a just and durable settlement in Te Urewera.

The events that occurred at Parihaka and in Te Urewera are facts. They are not made up and all New Zealanders need to have a good understanding of what happened. That is why changing the curriculum so that these matters can be taught in schools is very important.

In the 21st century, teaching New Zealand history must take precedence over teaching European or American history, but historical fact needs to be taught, not propaganda.

Teaching history requires an objective analysis of everything that has happened, both good and bad. My fear is that those designing the history curriculum in this country are essentially propagandists who will overlook the good that has occurred and concentrate instead on the bad.

Take, for example, the very good work of Christian mission­aries since 1840, such as Mother Mary Aubert who founded Our Lady’s Home of Compassion and ran a large mission at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. There were many other positive interactions between Pākehā and Māori, and some early Pākehā settlers expressed real concerns over the way Māori were being treated.

Hopefully the Ministry of Education will do a good job in supporting the teaching of New Zealand history in the years to come. However, I have serious misgivings about their ability to do the right thing and worry that what, in my opinion, is a one-sided propagandist approach will be counterproductive.

Extracted from Yes, Minister: An insider’s account of the John Key years by Christopher Finlayson. RRP$36.99. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. Out now.

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