Why the Waitangi Tribunal has to go

Seven reasons why the Waitangi Tribunal must go
Mike Butler
3 June 2013

A conspicuous absence in the Constitutional Advisory Panel’s “conversation” is debate about the role of the Waitangi Tribunal, a body that exerts disproportionate influence over public life. The Waitangi Tribunal is the “elephant in the room” – and its absence in the terms of reference that define the constitutional review implies that the Maori Party thinks it is doing a good job advocating for tribalist interests. This article gives seven reasons why the Waitangi Tribunal should be abolished.

1. A permanent, for-Maori-only complaint body creates a race fault line

Labour government Maori Affairs Minister Matiu Rata apparently did not grasp the constitutional implications of a permanent for-Maori-only complaint body when he introduced the Treaty of Waitangi Bill to parliament in 1974. Such a body that divides citizens along a Maori/non-Maori fault line conflicts with the assumed underlying simple principle that in a democracy like New Zealand all citizens must be treated the same under the law.  

Rata said that the purpose of the Waitangi Tribunal Act was to provide for the observation and confirmation of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and to determine claims about certain matters that were inconsistent with those principles. He said that: “To the Maori people it (the treaty) is a charter that should protect their rights.

The Leader of the Opposition, Robert Muldoon, spotted the problem after spending a couple of minutes reading the bill. “It must be emphasized that we are in fact one people”, he said, adding, “and the question can be asked whether special legislation of this type makes us one people or two peoples”.

An example of the tribunal’s exclusive focus on Maori rights appeared in February 1985, when D. McMaster of Auckland asked the tribunal to end special privilege accorded to Maori people by virtue of their race, arguing that these privileges were at variance with the Treaty of Waitangi. Mr McMaster was asked whether he was a Maori. He replied that he was not a Maori, so was required to withdraw his claim because Section 6 of the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 says only Maori people can bring a claim.

New Zealand’s race relations have deteriorated, especially since 1985, which was when the tribunal was empowered to investigate Maori claims back to 1840. (Using the tribal boundaries of 1840, decades of tribal warfare, as the basis for future claims is as absurd as taking the division of Europe as it was in 1940 as a basis for future just settlements.) That decision alone was responsible for the outpouring of claims, from three in 1987 to a total of 2034 by 2009, after the deadline for historical claims, and the payment of around $2-billion in financial redress.

Michael Bassett, who was a Minister in the Lange Labour government which empowered the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate Maori claims back to 1840, and later belonged to that tribunal, wrote that: “There are few futuristic ideas that have lost their sheen as quickly as the notion that settlements of Maori grievances would improve New Zealand’s race relations.”

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