Whose Treaty is it to be?

Colin James at Te Papa Waitangi debates

Claudia Orange has now twice cast me as a riroriro to a totara in this annual Te Papa Waitangi series. Three years ago I followed Sir Edward Durie. This evening I follow Sir Mason Durie. These brother totaras are of great stature. They root deep into the earth. A riroriro is a momentary flutter.

So first I will set contexts, which I have written and spoken about at length over the years and so will note only in brief now.

First, Aotearoa is Pacific. This is a fact of geography and has been gradually becoming a fact of life as Maori words, custom, culture and protocol seep into the “mainstream” and as the links with Polynesia re-form. This is the Pacific-ation of New Zealand: we are now increasingly of the Pacific, not just in the Pacific.

Second, New Zealand is economically and to a large extent socially a segment of Australasia. For 40 years we have been re-Australasianising, integrating our societies, economies and policies and to some extent our politics. Economic or geopolitical forces might drive this tiny nation to federate as a state — Australians would resist Sir Mason’s scenario-2 confederation — but equally the forces of climate change, mass migration, geopolitics and geo-economics might drive us in other directions.

Third, New Zealand is an outlier society: first, an outlier of Polynesia, from which it separated 600-800 years ago; then an outlier of Britain, from which over the past 40 years it has been separating, in mentality and custom (though not in heritage); and now, increasingly, an outlier of Asia as migrants and investors make themselves at home and some set up or buy enterprises here — we are Asianising and may in time become a sort of vassal state of China, whence will come increasingly ideas that drive science and technology and social and economic organisation. Next I note — again, only in brief — three forces that I think shape the evolving Treaty.

First, the Treaty is both reality and fiction, both of which have been important in aiding this nation to firm and find meaning. I examined this at length here three years ago. Second, the focus in “Maori” issues has since at least 2003 been shifting from rights to development — education, training and skills, managing and developing iwi assets and fostering entrepreneurial enterprise. Rights remain important, of course, but more in their exercise than in their recovery. There is a limit to anger as an engine of progress. A loose parallel is with the 1980s, when younger women bothered less about claiming rights than exercising rights their mothers had won.

Third, over the past 40 years the ex-British (and other later arrivals) have been indigenising. There is no other “home” or “land” for those born here with, now, up to seven generations of forebears of this place. Their culture and customs are now distinctively New Zealand/Aotearoa. In 2035 it will scarcely be credible to assign exclusive indigenous status to someone who is one-128th Maori by accident of birth or casual liaison.

It will be obvious from what I have said that I agree profoundly with Sir Mason that as we enter the “post-settlement” era, there will be “a shift from grievance and adversarial bargaining … towards a relationship based on a futures agenda”. I agree, too, that it was expected in 1840 the Treaty would “see a transition from a tribal society to a modern nation” and that “tribes would benefit from economic, social and civic gains”. It is time to recover that 1840 objective of progress.

I also agree that “there is no good reason why the Treaty should be the single most important defining statement about the position of Maori”. And, given the real commercial weight some iwi have been acquiring (still little known outside iwi), we have cause cautiously to share Sir Mason’s optimism that “tino rangatiratanga will increasingly be a product of demographic significance, economic might and acknowledgement by peers”. His scenario-3 international leadership by Maori in worldwide indigenous networks and his vision of international alliances, both not dependent on the Treaty, are intriguing.

But it will also be obvious from what I said earlier that I disagree with Sir Mason’s notion that the Treaty is about the relationship between Maori and the Crown.

First, the “Crown” is a fiction. Bagehot distinguished 140 years ago between the “dignified”, the ceremonial and powerless monarchy, and the “efficient”, the powerful cabinet and the bureaucracy. In this fictional Treaty parlance Georgina te Heuheu, Pita Sharples, Tariana Turia and Paula Bennett are both “Maori” and the “Crown”. When Sir Mason’s scenario-1 republic arrives (which may be beyond his 25-year timeframe) it will become obvious just how fictional the “Crown” has been.

Second, the Treaty was between sovereign iwi and hapu and the sovereign state of Britain: it applies to iwi and hapu issues, spheres of influence, assets and taonga. There was and can be no Treaty relationship between Maori in general and the “Crown”, except under article 3’s conferment of “subject” status but that is a relationship every citizen (which is the modern word for subject) has with the government.

Maori and other citizens are born, live and die under general laws; Maori pay taxes on their incomes in the same measure as other citizens; if they are out of work they receive the same Work and Income benefits; they drive on roads according to laws made for all in cars made in some other country; their children go to schools paid for by the government and expected to meet government-set standards; they are operated on in the same hospitals. That is article 3.

And if they are in some way disadvantaged the Treaty is not the remedial agent. The modern concept of citizenship connotes full participation in society and the economy, which implies state-guaranteed action to reduce inequalities of opportunity. Moreover, the modern concept of that action includes ensuring assistance works. And that implies sensitivity to cultural and other differences, which in turn includes understanding and working with different worldviews. That is the genesis of and mandate for Tariana Turia’s whanau ora project and Maori entities delivering education, health and social services. That is not an article 2 matter, dealing with iwi and hapu autonomy. It is article 3, dealing with citizenship.

Being citizens does not require Maori to be post-Enlightenment individuals stripped of whakapapa, custom, tikanga and heritage, though many Maori do choose to be post-Enlightenment individuals here and abroad. This is a Pacific nation and society and the outlier Polynesian culture has its place here as much as the outlier ex-British culture.

But iwi culture and custom will change. As we “normalise” te reo, words will acquire new meanings and connotations. As we “mainstream” tikanga, it will adapt. Modern Maori arts, crafts, dance and music are bending and stretching tradition. Iwi governance is modernising. That will not make a half-brown homogeneity but neither will there be pre-1840 dark brown and fair-white, except in special places and on ceremonial occasions.

In this evolving society the Treaty will evolve. It will have its place as a fact of history and as a fact of recovery of lost rights. It will be a moral, and probably legal, guide for the limited purposes of article 2, perhaps codified by Sir Mason’s scenario-1 republic. But the mystique some have attributed to the Treaty, the claim some make for its superior constitutional status and the convenient fictions which have influenced governments will lose their edge. The Treaty, too, will “normalise”.

That evolution highlights an observation by a 40-something friend last week: that before you this evening are two ageing men. These past 40 years or so the Treaty has been Sir Mason’s and my Treaty, in different ways. Over the next 40 years the Treaty will be the Treaty of the under-35s. When they are ageing men and women on platforms such as this, what, if anything, will they have to say about the future of the Treaty?