Last week, Māori Television’s Native Affairs programme screened excerpts of an interview that Wena Harawira did with Jim Bolger, a former (1990–97) New Zealand Prime Minister. They were discussing Treaty issues and Māori development. Wena caught up with him at a meeting of the Crown-Tūhoe board which now manages Te Urewera — and her first question was about the skills he brings to this board.
I guess my skills are somewhat obvious in the sense of the senior positions I’ve held from prime minister down. But what’s more important is the attitude I bring to the board because, if we’re going to be successful and take through this new concept of the Urewera “owning” itself and having its own legal personality, it’s going to be dependent on the views and values of the board members.
Has Tūhoe contributed to your knowledge of things Māori? Or changed your perceptions of Māori?
Every time I’ve engaged with Māori over the years I’ve gained new insights and new perspectives. Different iwi will have their own perspectives. But I’ve had the good fortune to grow up in a community where there were a lot of Māori people. I went to school with Māori. In fact, I was taken to school with Māori neighbours because they had a car and we didn’t. So I’ve had that engagement through the whole of my life. Therefore, I’m comfortable with it.
But I realise how little I know about particular aspects of Māori thinking, history, mythology — and what really drives Māori. Things that perhaps we don’t see on the surface.
Joan [Jim’s wife] went to school with the children from Parihaka and I went to school in the village, Opunake, next door. And the sad thing is that, while we knew it was a unique pā and there was some obviously unique history, we weren’t taught that at school.
Such a rich vibrant story and yet we were taught about the War of the Roses. We had a very strange perspective as to what was important.
I grew up close to Parihaka and knew about the great chief Te Whiti-o-Rongomai who said: “No, we’re not going to fight. There’s enough land to share. Why fight?” But we didn’t listen. We would’ve been much better people if we had. This was a man who was years ahead of his time. He was ahead of Mahatma Ghandi, the pacifist leader of India’s independence. And ahead of Martin Luther King in the United States with his pursuit of civil rights and non-violence.
How has it been working with Tamati Kruger who led the Tūhoe negotiations?
Tamati has a very deep philosophical view of the world. You have “life force” discussions with Tamati.
This whole idea that the Urewera owns itself is a concept that looked totally radical and off-the-wall. Unlike the Pākehā view that everybody owns something. But we discuss the issue of the land having been there forever. So it owns itself. And our responsibility is a version of kaitiaki.
Clearly, Tūhoe carry that mantle and the board carries that mantle in a slightly different way. How do we, on behalf of all New Zealanders, not only Tūhoe but the wider New Zealand community, carry that mantle of caring for — and being respectful of — the Urewera? In a sense, it’s a matter of being humble in the face of its greatness.
These are totally new concepts. In one way, I can see them fitting in quite easily to the whole environmental movement worldwide. It’s just that the human population hasn’t been respectful enough to the land, the water and the atmosphere. We’ve always just presumed it was always there, forever, and it was unlimited.
The colonial mindset, when they left European and other countries, was that, when they ran into land somewhere and stuck their flag on the shore, they could go forth and exploit. The land was unlimited. Now we all know land is limited and already severely damaged. So we have a responsibility to care for it. We have to manage things differently. We have to change.
Shall we turn now to Treaty settlements? Are you finding that the New Zealand public is becoming more receptive to the settlements?
We still have a selling job to do. I had a difficult selling job when I started what I describe as the modern settlement process. In other words, seriously looking at what we should do to settle the grievances that came out of our colonial past and subsequent to that.
People aren’t going to line up in the street and applaud and say: “What a wonderful idea.” But I have great respect for New Zealanders. They are decent people who’ll behave decently if the arguments are put forward in a sensible fashion and the explanations are given.
Just recently, we had this terrible statement from the Secretary of Education that they weren’t going to teach the history of the New Zealand Wars in our school curriculum, because it would somehow upset the scheme of things.
But we absolutely must teach an honest history of the settlement period of New Zealand. That’s the only way you can get acceptance of what still has to be done to correct some of those errors of the past. It wasn’t this generation that caused them, I know. But it’s this generation that has the responsibility and the obligation to resolve them. It can’t be handed on to another generation.
How do you feel about the Treaty process today?
I think we’re doing some good. I could argue that we could do better or go faster. But, in some respects, speed shouldn’t be an issue. That’s something I’ve learned from interacting with Māori, Māori leadership. It’s getting it right that’s the important issue.
I get frustrated at not getting up to speed quick enough. Then I reflect and say: “Well, it’s been there for more than a hundred years, so what’s another year?” It’s disappointing that some people are missing out. But you’ve got to try and get it right.
The progress through the 1990s was very positive. Then there was a bit of a lull. We’ve had three good Treaty Negotiations ministers — my good friend Doug Graham, Michael Cullen and Chris Finlayson. They all have empathy for the issue.
That work can only be done by people who have an openness of mind and heart, and who can see the issue through the eyes of those who were oppressed — and then ask: “How can we address that?” We can’t go back to what existed before. So we need to look at what is reasonable for this generation to do. Then we should get on with it.
Fair and reasonable compensation has been a contentious issue. Has this caused the government and Māori to look outside the box with the settlements?
Ocean Fisheries was the first big settlement I did. I consider that to be successful and innovative. We know now that we have to manage the oceans and sustainable fisheries because most of the world’s oceans have been over-fished. And we know now that the vast Pacific Ocean is actually a limited resource. That’s tested the durability of that settlement. But it also developed our thinking in a new way.
Tainui demonstrated the importance of two things. As land was taken, land must be returned. The other was more challenging and interesting. As Tainui had been — I use the word — insulted by the Crown, the Crown had to apologise. Now that’s a challenge, seeing that the Crown’s Head of State lives in London.
So what we did there — that’s myself, Doug Graham and Foreign Ministry officials — was to reach out to the Palace and say: “We will write a very detailed and substantive apology in the introduction to the Act that settled the Tainui claim, and invite her Majesty to sign that Act into law on her next visit to New Zealand.”
That was a first. That was innovative. And that got past an obvious block because you can’t just roll on to the Palace and say: “Sign here Ma’am.”
I have this wonderful photo of me with my hand out inviting her Majesty to sign there.
Why did you go for a billion dollar cap to settle all the historical claims?
That was the first challenge when I was prime minister. What was a fair amount? So I set a billion dollars. Some said that’s outrageous. That’s an extraordinary sum of money. I could not even pretend I had calculated all the potential claims and come to a sum. Nor had my colleague, Doug Graham.
We just agreed that a billion dollars was a large sum of money and we had to have some parameters to encourage the early settlers, Tainui, Ngāi Tahu and so forth, because they had to have some idea of what the Crown’s thinking was. It has since gone much higher than that, which was almost inevitable.
There’s been a tendency for the public to keep referring to the settlement payments as “taxpayers’ money.” But that’s wrong, isn’t it?
Yes. But the good news is that as we’ve progressed and we’ve demonstrated the benefits of settling. New Zealanders, I think, have almost universally come on side. Of course, you get some that aren’t on side — but that’s inevitable.
But there is no drama now when the government announces a settlement of an iwi claim. And that’s a wonderful transition for New Zealanders over the last 20 odd years. They have moved from saying: “There is no difference between us, and there’s nothing to be done” — which was the common view — to saying: “We seem to be doing it right.”
So people have a better understanding today of the Treaty process?
Our history is the key. You’ve got to understand history and that’s why we’ve got to change this view about the land wars.
Does the Treaty process have a bearing on New Zealand’s race relations?
Absolutely. My view is that it has a very positive bearing.
Fair-minded people can see that progress has been made. This is not something that’s been brushed to one side and ignored. It’s now been brought together in a way that’s reasonable and fair.
All New Zealand has an interest in this being resolved. We have to deal with some of the errors, mistakes and abuses of the past. And that’s what we’re doing.
Who were your Māori mentors when you were prime minister?
I spoke with a lot but I think of people like Sir Graham Latimer from Ngāpuhi, who I knew before I was PM. He was always a wise calm head. Sir Tipene O’Regan was another. I had a lot to do with him in my time in politics. And obviously Sir Bob Mahuta was very important — as were other Tainui people I grew up with when I moved to the King Country. We were on Tainui land so increasingly I met more of them. And one of my good friends and neighbours at Te Kuiti was the Labour minister, Koro Wetere. Sir Hepi Te Heuheu was also an extraordinary man and a wonderful leader.
So no single person was my mentor. But what I found was that they were all generous and fair in their observations about what could or couldn’t be achieved. I don’t recall any of them asking for something unreasonable.
In fact, it was Graham Latimer who, early on, advised me to be careful: “Jim, make sure you don’t create another grievance in solving a grievance.” I thought that was very wise.
The great news is that the fears that some had — like boats being locked out of Taupo, and people not being allowed in the Urewera. Well, none of that has transpired. So the fears that some advanced from the fringes of politics about the terrible consequences — they’ve all been proven false.
What’s your understanding of rangatiratanga or Māori sovereignty?
It’s a challenging concept. And I have unsettled some people by suggesting that we should choose the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.
It’s a nice design in my view. And it reaches back into the history of New Zealand in a way that nothing else can. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, even though I support changing the flag.
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 non-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 contributing $5 or $10 a month.