Whina Cooper, Dominion President of the Maori Women's Welfare League. Photograph taken by T Ransfield. Tourist and Publicity. Ref: 1/2-040176-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

The influence of conspiracy theorists peddling misinformation and whipping up hatred against particular segments of the population has been brought into stark relief during the current pandemic. There is no phrase more ominous than “I’ve done my own research”, and the extended lockdowns and dodgy social media algorithms sucked many people into a vortex of distortions and outright falsehoods when it came to Covid-19.

Conspiracy theories may be easier to spread in the age of the internet but they are hardly a new phenomenon. For much of the period up until the 1970s a dominant Pākehā narrative was that New Zealand had the greatest ‘race relations’ in the world. Māori were lucky – privileged even – to have been colonised by those settlers who chose to come to New Zealand. Things could have been so much worse for them. Just imagine the French.

With the rise of Ngā Tamatoa, the 1975 Māori Land March, Bastion Point, the Raglan golf course occupation, annual protests at Waitangi and the emergence of a new and much more critical historiography, that rose-tinted view of New Zealand’s past became much harder to sustain. Instead, it went underground. It became a conspiracy theory. The true history of New Zealand was being suppressed by Māori and their sickly white liberal accomplices in the nation’s history departments and halls of power. But the truth would come out. It could not be suppressed forever.

That belief has sustained what Victoria University of Wellington scholar Richard Hill (who wrote an analysis of such works) describes as 50 years of ‘anti-Treatyist’ literature and lobbying. Historian Peter Meihana’s new book, Privilege in Perpetuity: Exploding a Pākehā Myth, based on his 2015 PhD thesis, explores and critiques the notion that Māori are a uniquely privileged people, tracing its origins to James Cook’s 18th Century voyages.

He attributes his own interest in the topic to Stuart C. Scott’s 1995 book, The Travesty of Waitangi (which he mistitles Travesty of the Treaty). Scott’s self-published volume was a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 18,000 copies in less than a year according to Meihana. It’s also a deeply racist work, repeating all of the familiar tropes that writers of this kind like to peddle. Their version of history goes something like this: Māori were a backward, brutish and barbaric people (“an extremely savage race”, according to Scott) who were on the path to self-destruction through the ‘Musket Wars’ before an enlightened and humane British intervention in 1840 saved them from themselves. Despite ceding sovereignty to the Crown through the Treaty of Waitangi, these writers assert, many ungrateful Māori rebelled against its authority in the New Zealand Wars, murdering many peaceful and law-abiding Pākehā settlers in the process. Thanks to mostly ‘colour-free’ laws, in this narrative the country prospered until the 1970s, when successive governments inexplicably embarked on a scheme to transfer wealth and power to Māori. Only through bringing to light the ‘true history’ of the country, they believe, could the gross injustice of these developments be exposed for all to see.

In this fantasy version of New Zealand’s past, the Crown had nothing to apologise for and no need to settle historical Māori claims. These had been manufactured out of nothing for a particular purpose. The so-called “Treaty gravy train” was, according to these writers, simply part of a plot to enrich a tiny Māori (or ‘part-Māori’) elite and their lawyers and researchers. Inventing claims was all part of the plot.

It might sound utterly deluded to some younger ears today, but in 2004 many of these ideas went mainstream. Struggling in the polls, then leader of the Opposition, Don Brash, delivered a blistering attack on race-based privileges for Māori and the ‘Treaty grievance industry’ during his notorious speech to the Orewa Rotary Club. Brash’s calls for “one law for all” struck a chord with large numbers of Pākehā voters. As Gilbert Wong wrote in Metro a few months later, “Labour has looked embattled ever since, the letters columns of the newspapers have howled with unchecked Pākehā rage, and if you have brown skin and attend a tertiary institution, it has felt like open season.”

All of those adult New Zealanders denied access to the history of their own country during their own school years, or otherwise taught the mythical version of it in which Māori and Pākehā lived happily ever after, need the chance to catch up on what really happened

Brash narrowly lost the 2005 election as a result of which his promises to tear up Treaty settlements and end Māori ‘privilege’ came to naught. But let’s take a closer look at one of the examples cited by him and his supporters. A common one was Māori preferential entry to medical schools. Racist, they said. Never mind that Māori were (and remain) massively underrepresented in the medical profession, and die much younger than non-Māori or that a wealth of evidence points to better health outcomes with more Māori in the health workforce. Also conveniently overlooked was the fact that Māori who gained entry through the quota scheme still had to pass exactly the same exams as everyone else in order to qualify as doctors. Instead, all they got was more racism. In the wake of Brash’s speech, Māori medical students reported being abused by their classmates and some were said to be considering dropping out of medicine altogether.

It was an ugly time in our country’s past and there is ample evidence that the views promoted by Brash and others still have currency in some quarters – witness Hobson’s Pledge, Tross Publishing and other examples. Historical literacy and awareness is the enemy of ill-informed bigotry. That is why the teaching of New Zealand history in all schools from this year is so important. And it’s also why Peter Meihana’s book charting the origins and subsequent development of the notion of Māori privilege is so timely.

All of those adult New Zealanders denied access to the history of their own country during their own school years, or otherwise taught the mythical version of it in which Māori and Pākehā lived happily ever after, need the chance to catch up on what really happened.  Books like this will help provide it.

As Meihana notes, most of the New Zealand history denialists claim to be pro-Treaty of Waitangi. It’s just that the Treaty they rely on is one where Māori acknowledged Crown sovereignty in return for all the rights and privileges of British subjects. It’s the kind of version that might have taught up until the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many of the anti-Treatyists are older Pākehā men. As Joanna Kidman and I wrote in our book Fragments from a Contested Past, the politics of nostalgia can be a powerful lure, and “it is hardly surprising if some yearn for a return to the imagined simpler, racially harmonious days of their own youth”.

History needs to be grounded in something more solid, like a real engagement with our past, warts and all, rather than a cheery-picked and deeply decontextualised reading of selective elements of it. Meihana notes, for example, how anti-Treatyists love to quote one or two statements from Sir Āpirana Ngata but ignore his long political career dedicated to striving for Māori rights in an actively hostile environment.

Meihana shows how promises of protection held out to Māori in the Treaty were quickly forgotten after 1840 when they were perceived to be inconvenient to settler interests. Among others, the New Zealand Company (perhaps the largest white collar crime syndicate in New Zealand history, specialising in selling property it did not own – namely Māori lands), was especially dismissive, its governor describing the Treaty in 1843 as nothing “but a praiseworthy device for amusing and pacifying savages for the moment”.

It’s a familiar story for those previously exposed to it but an important one to learn for those who know nothing of our past about the multiple ways in which Māori were parted from their lands and marginalised within the political system. When Parliament met for the first time in 1854 Māori were still the majority of the population. They remained unrepresented in Parliament and largely ineligible to vote until four Māori seats were established in 1868 (at a time when, on a population basis, Māori were entitled to at least 15 electorates). Not surprisingly, Parliament proved overwhelmingly hostile to Māori interests and petitions and appeals to it often received short shrift.

Realising they could not achieve justice within New Zealand, Māori appealed to their Treaty partner, Queen Victoria, but were blocked in their efforts to lay their grievances before her by the cynical, behind-the-scenes machinations of the New Zealand government and its representative in London. For its part, the British government washed its hands of the Treaty. See no evil, hear no evil.

The notion that Māori have enriched themselves at the expense of others is simply laughable. Take a guess who is being enriched. Here’s a clue: it’s not Māori

Meanwhile, the Native Land Court, aptly described by Sir Hugh Kawharu as a “veritable engine of destruction” for Māori society was unleashed on the tribes. By the early 20th Century only a small fraction of the country remained in Māori ownership. Settlers decried being denied access to these last few million acres. The laws were changed. In 1909 all remaining restrictions on the sale of Māori lands were removed. As late as 1967 legislation was passed providing for the compulsory alienation (effectively, confiscation) of Māori lands deemed ‘uneconomic’.

In 1975, Whina Cooper led the Māori Land March under the banner “Not one more acre of Māori land”. The Waitangi Tribunal was established that same year and the first tentative steps towards addressing our troubled past began a decade later when it was given jurisdiction to investigate Māori grievances relating to acts or omissions of the Crown dating back to 1840.

While the anti-Treatyists might recoil in horror at these developments, most fair-minded New Zealanders would regard them as very necessary steps in the evolution of the nation. And given Treaty settlements typically return no more than about 1 to 2 percent of the value of what was lost, the notion that Māori have enriched themselves at the expense of others is simply laughable. Take a guess who is being enriched. Here’s a clue: it’s not Māori. They are receiving back a tiny fraction of what was taken from them in the hope of being able to rebuild their tribal economies and starting to heal.       

Some Pākehā would rather believe the Treaty settlements process is simply a con-job being perpetrated against non-Māori, since to do otherwise would be to call into question core elements of their sense of national identity. But, frankly, it is time for new forms of identity to emerge based on a full, frank and honest reckoning with our past. Only then will the tired platitudes on Māori privilege finally be laid to rest.

Privilege in Perpetuity: Exploding a Pākehā Myth by Peter Meihana (Bridget Williams Books, $17.99) is available in bookstores nationwide

Vincent O'Malley is the author of a trilogy on the 19th-century New Zealand Wars, culminating in Voices from the New Zealand Wars/He Reo nō Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa (published by Bridget Williams Books),...

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