Waitangi, the Elephant in the Motu

We've asked one of our trustee's, Alistair Reese, to blog about his every-day experiences as a man on a reconciling mission... insights from the heart ... justice on the journey... He honore ki te Atua, Maungarongo ki te Whenua, Whakaaro pai ki nga tangata katoa! (Glory to the Creator, Peace to the earth, Goodwill to all people!) Tihei wa mauriora!

It’s that time of year again, when the ‘elephant in the motu’ makes its appearance. I am referring to the nation’s commemoration of Te Tiriti or the Treaty of Waitangi on February 6th. This year, however, the ‘elephant’ might trumpet more regularly because it happens to be 175 years since the signing, and perhaps even more importantly, because the Constitutional Advisory Panel’s recommendations on a Constitution, which were tabled in 2013, will be considered by the Crown. Although the Government has given no clear timetable yet for constitutional reform it is clear that the Treaty will be a major talking point. Indeed, one of the recommendations of the Advisory Panel to the Government is that it: ‘develops a national strategy for civics and citizenship education in schools and in the community, including the unique role of the Treaty of Waitangi, te Tiriti o Waitangi, and assign responsibility for the implementation of the strategy…’

A question. How will these recommendations be received by the wider populous?

Perhaps somewhat simplistically I suggest with regard to Te Tiriti, “the populous” might be characterized in the following way. To some, February 6th is simply an opportunity to enjoy a day free of work or school responsibilities, with scarcely a thought to the holiday’s raison d’etre.  I would call this group the agnostic or silent majority – without any clear perspective on Waitangi, and even an ambivalence towards the Treaty conversation.

The other two other groups hold stronger opinions; they are numerically less than the silent majority and occupy positions that are diametrically opposed to each other.

One of these groups, made up of mainly Pākehā and later settlers, holds that the Treaty is merely an historical or cultural artefact, and one which is presently an aberration in our national commemoration calendar. In their view, it privileges on the basis of ethnicity and has the potential to divide a nation that holds a proud record of race relations. The refrain from this group proposes that Waitangi is a Trojan horse for a system of apartheid in Aotearoa NZ – this narrative continues the negative tenor of the 1877 pronouncement by Justice Prendergast that the Treaty is a “simple nullity”, or Donald Brash’s 2004 Orewa Nationhood speech, where he iterated that the document had passed its ‘used by date’ and implies that it is an unsuitable reference point for any Constitutional discussions.

The third group – a mixture of Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā, argues that the Treaty is an inviolable document, the founding document of this land and one that is not only worthy of annual commemoration but one that needs to be at the centre of any Constitutional formulation. This position is exemplified by the Disability Rights Commissioner Paul Gibson, who says: ‘The Constitution needs to fall out of the Treaty, not the other way around’. In other words the Treaty is the cornerstone from which any talks on the Constitution should proceed.  To use an analogy from te ao Māori, Te Tiriti is the tuakana, and the Constitution is the teina – the Constitution is the younger sibling that needs to acknowledge the Treaty’s elder status.

In my view the third group is on solid ground, for reasons that I shall explore in future posts. This February 6th, with many others, I shall make the annual pilgrimage to Waitangi to engage with ‘the elephant’ kanohi ki te kanohi. I look forward to hearing its sound. Perhaps I shall see you there!

Alistair Reese

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *