Professor David Williams hopes Te Arawhiti will not be just a monitoring body that ticks boxes, but a bridge where the Crown can engage constructively with Māori

Intra-Coalition skirmishing within the Government about the use of the word ‘partnership’ delayed the launch of a new Crown agency with that word in the title, but last week the newly minted agency was announced as the Office for Māori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti.

For the New Zealand First Party the ‘principles of the Treaty of Waitangi’, invented by judges in the 1980s to interpret words that Parliament itself has steadfastly refused to define, have been a target of frequent criticisms and so the ‘partnership’ word had to go from the title.

The new agency is not a stand-alone ministry. Calls for a separate ministry were a significant element of many submissions to Kelvin Davis as he attended engagement hui around the country earlier in the year seeking to flesh out what the aims should be for his new portfolio of Minister for Crown/Māori Relations. The new agency remains under the umbrella of the Ministry of Justice but its chief executive will report directly to Mr Davis.

This is an important step forward and a very necessary re-orientation of public sector responsibilities in Treaty of Waitangi relationships. There is a sense that many voters had rather hoped that the imminent conclusion of historical Treaty claims would be an end to constant attention given to Māori issues. At times commentators have noted ‘Treaty fatigue’ as the 10-year Treaty Settlements policy, first implemented in 1995, has stretched on for more than two decades – with the end not quite in sight even now.

However, a large proportion of Treaty settlements have been enacted into statutes and a feature of those settlements – little-noticed by those who focus only on the financial redress quantum – is the large number of commitments by the Crown to future ongoing relationships with settling iwi on a huge range of specific issues. Indeed, it has been estimated that around 7000 promises have been made by the Crown in historical claim negotiations and settlement Acts.

It is sincerely to be hoped that the new agency will not be just a monitoring body that ticks boxes indicating that something or other has been done to notice the existence of protocols and the fact of relationship meetings from time to time. Not just Māori, but all New Zealanders concerned that the future of our nation is built on healthy foundations derived from reciprocal and mutually beneficial obligations that the Treaty of Waitangi originally proposed, will want more than that.

It is a self-evident fact, in the leadership of political parties and membership of the House of Representatives, that the Crown in Parliament is not the overwhelmingly Pākehā institution that it once was. Yet Treaty of Waitangi relationships have never been about ethnicity or ‘race’. They have always been about Crown relationships with hapū and iwi. The Crown has been transformed from a British colonialist imposition to a representative institution in a liberal democracy. Hapū and iwi have had to adjust to many unilateral changes in the nature and form of Treaty relationships over the years – usually without any direct input into constitutional reforms introduced from 1852 to the present.

The new agency will have the task of attending to enhancing public sector capacity to deal with Treaty relationship issues across the whole of government. This is a sign that the Waitangi Tribunal’s Wai 262 report Ko Aoteroa Tenei (2011) has been taken seriously at last. Inevitably there will be contemporary issues that arise from time to time and there will be a Crown agency with expertise and responsibility to handle such issues.

More than that, and of great significance in my opinion, one of the innovative aspects of the Government’s announcement is that one of the agency’s workstreams will be to provide strategic leadership to deal with “other matters including the constitutional arrangements supporting partnerships between the Crown and Māori”. Talk of constitutional reform informed by the Treaty of Waitangi is one of those issues that have been kicked to touch more than once this century. The reports of the Constitutional Arrangements Select Committee led by Peter Dunne MP (2005) and the Constitutional Advisory Panel (2013) have noted that this is an issue which is unlikely to go away, but that as yet public opinion is a very long way from the consensus necessary to achieve constitutional change. Meanwhile a range of options have been proposed by Māori such as those in the Matike Mai Aotearoa report (2016).

What the future holds we cannot yet know, but we do now know that there is a positive government commitment to be future-oriented in Treaty relationships rather than dealing only with past historical grievances. The name Te Arawhiti invokes the imagery of Treaty relationships as a bridge. A Métis indigenous leader, Paul Chartrand, spoke to me some years ago of his role as a cultural broker between indigenous and settler communities in his Canadian province. He said it was like he was a bridge. Usually this was a positive thing, but on occasion people from both sides can walk all over you. It is greatly to be hoped that Te Arawhiti will be a bridge where the Crown can engage constructively with Māori for the good of all of us living in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Professor David V Williams was a member of a group that offered advice to Kelvin Davis, Minister of Crown Māori Relations, prior to the announcement of the launch of the Office of Maori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti.

David V Williams FRSNZ is Professor Emeritus and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Auckland

Leave a comment