Beliefs that co-governance is ‘unfair’ are based on fundamental misconceptions about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and what a commitment to equality truly means as both democratic principle and obligation. By Prof Janine Hayward, Dr Emily Beausoleil, Prof Richard Shaw, and Dr Claire Timperley.

As efforts to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi increase, so do cries from some sectors of our society that these efforts are ‘undemocratic’, ‘divisive’, or ‘unfair’. This isn’t surprising. We know that in all settler-colonial states, settlers often have a hard time sensing the dynamics and effects of colonisation – and generations of us have not had a chance to learn about this, or the accurate translation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, in our schools.

If you’ve grown up under the (now disproven) belief that Māori ceded sovereignty, or that the institutions settlers put in place in Aotearoa provide equal chances for voice, access, or support, then you might look at initiatives like the Rotorua Lakes Council’s proposed representation changes and believe these are going ‘too far’ or undermine democracy.

The Rotorua proposal is for three councillors to be elected from a Māori ward which would normally elect one councillor. Those who oppose this proposal claim that equal weight to individual votes is undermined by greater Māori representation in council.

This is not a new argument: we hear it often from Hobson’s Pledge when they object to any targeted efforts to address chronic inequalities between Māori and non-Māori. But this kind of logic is based in fundamental misconceptions about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and what a commitment to equality truly means as both democratic principle and Te Tiriti obligation.

Te Tiriti obligations: Equality of peoples, not just individuals

For those who haven’t read an accurate English translation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the version that was debated and signed by rangatira in 1840, and authoritative according to international law (contra preferentum) – Te Tiriti o Waitangi Articles outline that, for those who had settled in this country by 1840 and for others yet to come:

  1. The Queen is permitted to govern her own people (kāwanatanga, or governorship) in Aotearoa; while
  2. The Queen recognises and guarantees the continuing tino rangatiratanga (ultimate political authority, sometimes translated as independence or sovereignty) of Māori over their lands, villages, and everything else that is held precious; and
  3. Māori have the same access to laws and customs as British subjects.

This means that Māori and non-Māori have the same rights and protections, including the right to vote (Article 3). But this is merely a fraction of the story, which is one of co-governance of two peoples, where the authority to self-govern is granted to the British (Article 1) in the context of and contingent on the obligation to honour the ongoing authority of Māori rangatira (Article 2). As Anne Salmond reflects on Te Tiriti today:

“The promise of ‘ngā tikanga rite tahi’ (exactly equal tikanga) in Te Tiriti, which has never yet been realised, is one of equality between different ways of being. It is precisely ideas of ‘racial superiority’ that make this kind of weaving almost impossible, ripping the social fabric apart.”

When Māori granted non-Māori the right to self-govern in 1840, Pākehā were a tiny minority. Among all the inequalities that Treaty breaches since 1840 have produced, it is worth taking a moment with one that is often overlooked in these debates about ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’: a massive demographic shift that meant Pākehā became the majority population as early as the 1850s. Alongside the invention of new laws and various financial means (described in 1880 by the colonial government’s own West Coast Commission as ‘simply make-believe’ and ‘nothing but secret bribery’), demographics is one of the most fundamental tools of settler-colonialism: the sheer weight of settler numbers, as they take over Indigenous land.

So crying foul in the face of co-governance efforts and claiming they undermine equality is frankly disingenuous. It ignores Articles 1 and 2 and therefore misrepresents Article 3. And it puts the blinders on when it comes to the profoundly unequal conditions in which such debates occur. Current dominance of non-Māori – in formal politics, institutions, media, indeed in most sites of power – directly violates the obligations in Te Tiriti that permit non-Māori to be here. And current demographics mean mobilisation of majority rule is one more tool by which to reinforce that dominance. Arguments that co-governance efforts work against ‘equal rights’ falsely represent our current inequalities and Te Tiriti, are used to rationalise institutional arrangements with a long historical record of producing policy which has had disastrous impacts on Māori, and fuel the reactionary backlash to decolonisation that hold us back as a nation.

Te Tiriti commits us to co-governance – mutual recognition and equality of two peoples in partnership. In the name of equality, then, as well as the specific obligations set out in the terms for our coexistence, serious changes are needed to redress the deeply entrenched inequalities in political power, resource, and recognition between Pākehā and Māori.

A few extra seats at the table at council is still a far cry from the equality between peoples committed to in Te Tiriti. We have a very long way to go. But it is a step in the right direction, both in the name of greater equality, and the commitments made for coexistence in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

It’s time to put aside false narratives about Te Tiriti and democracy, so we can actually realise the promise of both, and become a more equal country. Many of us may have grown up with these falsehoods that keep inequalities in place. But when we have learned to see more, we have a responsibility to do better.

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