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Race Relations in New Zealand

New Zealand is widely considered to have the best race relations in the world. Yet, 2004 has been the year of race politics in the country. That epithet has been challenged in the past six months to devastating effect. The right-wing National Party opposition, under the new leadership of former central bank governor Don Brash, has indulged in some populist ‘wedge’ politics as a means of shoring up his party’s and the centre-right’s poll numbers. Prior to January they had been falling and it seemed inevitable that a centre-left Labour-led government would win the next general election in 2005. Test

Then one steamy southern summer night in late January this year that all changed.

The Orewa speech

It was one speech delivered to a receptive audience of predominantly white, middle-aged, middle class Rotarians in the resort settlement of Orewa, just north of the city of Auckland, which set the New Zealand political scene alight.

In what has become known as the ‘Orewa speech’, Brash delivered some traditional conservative invective on race relations in terms of analysing them between the nation’s two main ethnic groups, namely, Maori and European.

He accused Maori of being the recipients of privilege. He also said that New Zealand was heading down the path of racial separatism for this reason. He cited the numerous government assistance programmes that were available to Maori as an example of this. Moreover, he criticised the nearly 140 year practice of retaining separate parliamentary constituencies for Maori (of which there are currently seven). Furthermore, Brash served up criticism of the so-called Treaty of Waitangi ‘grievance industry’ in terms of it being an impediment to improving race relations.

The British context

Indeed the Treaty of Waitangi has been used as the convenient lever to pull National and its centre-right political allies up again. It is a treaty that Maori did sign in good faith. It is also a treaty that some of the early British colonists drew up and signed in the humanitarian hope that the Maori people would be protected from the worst ravages of colonialism.

However, the history of the treaty and with it, that of race relations in New Zealand, has followed a similar course to that experienced in other societies that Britain also colonised. This is the case as the UK signed many agreements with indigenous peoples in Africa, North America and the Pacific to facilitate the ‘peaceful’ settlement of European colonists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instead these agreements were rarely, if ever, adhered to by the UK and its successor settler governments due to the economic, social, political and cultural oppression of indigenous populations.

This desire to mistreat the indigenous nations who became entrapped in the growing British Empire was driven by pure colonial capitalist greed. New Zealand was no exception as the Maori people were to discover. But there was one difference in the case of Maori – they were prepared in the late twentieth century to fight back and in a way that forced the governments of an independent, European-dominated New Zealand to accede to some of their rightful demands.

Maori and first contact

The Maori people had flourished in New Zealand since their ancestors had arrived from Polynesia around 1000AD. Generally, the Maori people were (and still are) economically and socially collectivist. Political authority was hierarchical within each hapu (tribe) resting with hereditary male chiefs. The Maori economy was predominantly based around hunting and gathering from the land and the sea. While inter-tribal conflict was not uncommon, alliances between various tribes assisted in facilitating communication and trade between them.

This was the way it remained until the first European contacts were made.

The European discoveries of New Zealand or Aotearoa as it is known to Maori, the first in 1642 by Dutch sailor Abel Tasman and the second by Captain James Cook in 1769-70 helped stimulate interest in the country. Although not seen as having any great strategic or economic value, the international rivalry of the British and French helped seal New Zealand’s fate.

This was especially the case after the emergence of the British penal colonies in Australia. The need for ship building materials and supplies (such as whale products) is what drew British traders and settlers to New Zealand from the early 1800’s. They established trading relationships with local Maori which were, on the whole, relatively beneficial to both sides to begin with.

Around 1830, the nature of European settlement began to change. It began to take on a permanency that had earlier been seen in other colonial societies such as Australia and Canada as traders, whalers and sealers became more profitable. Christian missionaries, such as the Church of England’s Samuel Marsden, began to have an impact on Maori whom became increasingly Christianised as a result of their activities.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The paternalistic desire of the British authorities both to protect Maori from the worst excesses of colonialism and facilitate the orderly settlement of their citizens in New Zealand drove Maori towards, in the words of the late New Zealand historian Michael King, “a permanent and constitutional relationship with Britain.”

The British authorities did this in two ways. Firstly, through the Governor of New South Wales Richard Bourke, they appointed a British resident James Busby to protect the interests of the European settlers and those of Maori against exploitation. In 1835, Busby persuaded some chiefs in the Far North of the North Island to sign ‘A Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand’ and these chiefs were designated as the ‘Confederation of United Tribes.’ This was no radical American-style declaration driven by a yearning to be free of the imperial yoke but rather a device by Busby to regulate the growth of the maritime trade around New Zealand.

The Foreign Office in London felt that Busby had exceeded his legal authority by concluding, from a Eurocentric standpoint, that Maori were not organised as a nation-state given that the tribes (through their rangatira or chiefs) still exercised authority (rangatiratanga) over loosely-defined geographical areas. The urgency of the situation was illustrated as well by the emergence of capitalist entrepreneurs, such as the former convict Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Britain feared that his New Zealand Company had its eye on colonising the country in its own name. These matters propelled London into sending a naval officer, William Hobson, to New Zealand with the intention of negotiating the voluntary transfer of sovereignty from Maori in mid-1839.

Hobson arrived in New Zealand in late January 1840 and given that he had only minimal instructions, he was given the responsibility he drew up the text of a treaty with his secretary, James Freeman and also William Busby. The Maori draft of the treaty (known as Te Tiriti O Waitangi) was written by the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward who were both fluent in Maori.

Both language versions of the treaty have been disputed and re-interpreted over the years. However, the three English language articles of the treaty promised the following. In the first article, Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to the British Crown. In the second article, though, Maori were guaranteed by the Crown the right to retain exclusive title over their lands and other resources for as long as they wanted to. The only agencies that could purchase land from Maori were the Crown and/or its appointed agents. An understanding was also reached that any Maori land or property would have to be sold at a fair price. The third article promised that in return for the ceding of sovereignty, Maori would enjoy the same rights and privileges of British subjects.

The majority of Maori chiefs who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi thought they were only granting kawanatanga (governorship) to the British authorities in respect of European settlers only. They also understood that under their version of article two they would retain tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) in decisions regarding their lands and other resources and could only sell them for a fair price through the Crown. The third article, in the eyes of Maori, gave them a guarantee that the British Government would legally protect and uphold their rights.

500 chiefs of the various tribes throughout New Zealand signed this version of the treaty in good faith although some did not. For those who did not, it was probably prescient on their part as this good faith was about to be tested given that the early colonists were about to exploit and badly treat the Maori people. This meant that no sooner had the ink dried, the first violations began.

Oppression and resistance

These violations were driven by the insatiable appetite for land that the settlers had and in the end these provoked Maori into confrontation with the growing number of European settlers and their government. The first such confrontation took place at Wairau, near the present day South Island city of Nelson, in June 1843 when the New Zealand Company decided to push their land claims in that area much to the anger of local Maori who were led by the chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata.

The Wirau incident was to start more than three intense decades of Maori oppression and, in response, resistance. This occurred as the colonial administration usurped what remained of the land, resources and political authority of Maori in violation of the treaty. They did this through gradually taking away their lands and resources via two means. The first was through unfair land sales with, for example, most of the South Island being sold for less than its market value during the early 1840s. The second was via the forcible confiscation of land by the Crown. This method was deployed particularly as a means of punishing rebellious tribal confederations as the Tainui people of the Waikato found out during the Maori Wars of the 1860s.

There were other celebrated instances of resistance. One Maori chief Hone Heke cut down the flagpole flying the Union Jack over New Zealand’s first capital Kororareka in 1844 in the hope that the mana (authority) over the land would be jointly held by both the government and Maori.

In the late nineteenth century, the resistance to government usurpation also took on more non-violent forms as trial confederations sought to set up parallel Maori political institutions to work alongside those of the European settlers. There were demands made in 1881 that a Maori Parliament be established to complement the colonial parliament. Maori saw this as a means to achieve the self-determination promised them in the treaty.

The hopes for a Maori Parliament, though, died in the embers of a western North Island town called Parihaka. In moves reminiscent of Britain’s brutal suppression of the Indian mutinies of the 1850s, the Maori town was destroyed by colonial forces on the orders of the government after a pacifist-inspired revolt led by the chief Te Whiti. The British Government, still seen by some Maori as the ultimate guarantor of their treaty rights, did not intervene in this and other treaty violation cases as they saw the matter as an entirely New Zealand affair.

Effectively the treaty was eroded as by the early twentieth century, Maori land continued to be taken away through superficially legal means by successive New Zealand governments. As legal, constitutional and political power was effectively repatriated from Britain, this became easier to achieve. With every transfer of economic, social, political and cultural sovereignty to European New Zealanders, the position of Maori became more marginalised.

As this occurred, Maori became quietly more disempowered and embittered as European administrations attempted to relegate the treaty to historical status. For Maori the treaty continued to be a living document representing their hopes for equality and the redress of grievances.

It was these two divergent views of the treaty that were to form the backdrop for the current race relations debate in New Zealand.