Waitangi and The Foreshore

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 29, Lent 2004
by Robert Consedine

Maori called the Treaty relationship a sacred covenant. It is not about a few words written down in 1840. Like any right relationship it needs to be regularly examined, reviewed and renewed with good faith. The resurrection calls us to renew our relationship with the divinity – the risen Christ – in every person. This is especially important in the current debate about the Treaty relationship.

Twenty years ago the New Zealand Government embarked on what was arguably the transformation of the relationship between Maori and the Crown when they initiated legislation which lead to historic court cases. It was no longer politically possible for Governments to avoid the consequences of our colonial history and the time had come to confront that historic reality. The changes have inevitably had a profound impact on the wider society. We have witnessed confusing, painful, and often exciting developments that have created immense possibility not only for Maori, but also for all New Zealanders.

The place now occupied by Maori in New Zealand society, relative to our colonial history, is very hopeful.

This is a significant change from the marginalisation, which Maori have experienced for the first 150 years after the Treaty was signed.

However, what all Governments have failed to do, is creatively educate and inform New Zealanders about these changes, and the reasons for them. Most New Zealanders grew up with no knowledge of our colonial history and yet we walk in that history every day but we walk in that history with little understanding of the contemporary consequences.

In 1840, despite solemn commitments made by the British Crown, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) was quickly viewed by the settler Governments as largely irrelevant and quickly discarded. British Sovereignty was imposed and the classic process of colonisation over time was entrenched.

This is not the place to canvass that history, suffice to say that most of the wealth of this country was systemically transferred to the settler society in the face of unrelenting opposition from the Maori owners. Like colonialism throughout the world, it is an ugly history of the dispossession of indigenous people.

The Treaty relationship, at the time it was signed, had tremendous potential where both parties could reasonably expect mutual benefits. History demonstrates the primary beneficiaries were the new settlers.

The exciting prospect for our generation is that we are beginning to explore that potential in radically new ways.

The contemporary changes may be painful and confusing. Our comfortable myths are under attack. Growth from adolescence to maturity is inevitably unsettling, with plenty of failure along the way. It’s part of growing up – and New Zealand, like most colonial societies, is being forced to grow up.

None of this would happen without those often labeled as the activists or the radicals. These are the biblical people, the prophets, the people who take the risks, who are out ahead of us, raising the questions and crashing our comfort zones – uninvited! They are often the people who carry the pain of the excluded group. History tells us that without them there will be no social progress.

The struggle continues. We face an important test of the Treaty relationship this year, with the Foreshore and Seabed debate. One question is – why is there still so much resistance to Maori legal rights, when the rest of the population take their own rights for granted?

The signal from the Court of Appeal that some Iwi may own parts of the foreshore and seabed was the outcome of a legal process under English Common Law inherited at the time that British Sovereignty was imposed.

Why are those New Zealanders who so passionately believe that there should be one law for all, silent, as Maori once again, are in danger of being denied access to that same law and their legal rights through the courts.

Why is there such a public outcry against the possibility of Maori owning some of our foreshore when about one third is already in private ownership?

Is this an area where Pakeha privileges are perceived to be threatened? Is this what the renowned Jewish writer, Albert Memmi, meant when he said, ‘We are all tempted by racism. There is in us a soil prepared to receive and germinate its seeds the minute we let down our guard. We risk behaving in a racist manner each time we believe ourselves threatened in our privileges, in our well-being, or in our security.’

Nobody pretends that resolution of these issues under democratic governments is easy. The Government once again is faced with the tension of doing what is right or doing what is politically expedient. It is a moment in our history that calls for wisdom and discernment.

Twenty years on from the start of the modern era we have much to celebrate.

The struggle for self-determination all over the world is about the rights for peoples to control their own affairs, to run their own lives, to make their own decisions and take responsibility for the consequences. Maori, like indigenous people everywhere, are no exception.

In all the recent changes there is one lesson that stands out. Where Maori are in control of their own affairs the outcomes are more likely to be successful.

Here in the South Island we have the visionary and exemplary progress made by Ngai Tahu in the last ten years. Around the country we are seeing the transformation of relationships in many of our institutions, and we are witnessing the heartening growth of Maori businesses and the success of Maori health programmes and education systems such as Kohanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa and Whare Wananga.

I believe this is an exciting time to be alive. The challenge for us all is to have an informed involvement in the Treaty debate. This is not a time to lose our nerve and revert to a mythical past. Lack of information and knowledge can create fear – unnecessary fear. Diverse views need to be encouraged and welcomed. The task of healing history, creating new relationships and structures requires the informed involvement of all New Zealanders.

Robert Consedine is the co-author, with daughter Joanna Consedine, of ‘Healing Our History – The Challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi’ (Penguin 2001) now in its 4th reprint. He is one of the directors of Waitangi Associates Ltd which has been delivering Treaty Workshops for 15 years in over 150 institutions throughout New Zealand and in Canada.

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