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ĀteaFebruary 3, 2024

The principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, explained

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about the ‘Treaty principles’. Not sure what they are or where they fit in? We’ve got you covered.

What are these ‘principles’ of which you speak?

They’re ideas, phrases and words that are thought to capture the broad sentiments, intentions and goals of the Treaty to allow them to be incorporated into law and applied in practice. As well as the texts themselves, the principles also take into account the surrounding circumstances, like the debate that took place at Waitangi in February 1840 and the kōrero that has occurred in the nearly two centuries since.

So are the principles different from the Treaty proper? 

Yes, they are. Despite Te Tiriti o Waitangi being New Zealand’s de facto constitution, we are one of only five nations without a proper written constitution. Because of that, Te Tiriti itself doesn’t feature explicitly in our law – but that’s where the principles come in. They are the Treaty’s representative within law, which seek to define the Treaty’s role in modern Aotearoa-New Zealand.

A section of the Treaty of Waitangi. (Image: Public Domain)

Why can’t we just use the Treaty text itself?

Because there is no single Treaty text – there are two documents with different promises. While Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the reo Māori version) upholds Māori sovereignty (tino rangatiratanga), the Treaty of Waitangi (the English version) says tāngata whenua forfeited it “absolutely and without reservation”. Both texts, however, affirm Māori rights and interests over taonga, including tangible ones like whenua and intangible ones like te reo Māori alike. Te Tiriti o Waitangi was the version the majority of rangatira signed and is the variant recognised by international law as legitimate. Despite that, the government won’t wholeheartedly accept Te Tiriti because it undermines its authority. In Te Tiriti, government power (kāwanatanga) is subservient to indigenous sovereignty (tino rangatiratanga). 

Right. So can you give me a list of the principles?

There’s no final or complete list – the principles are determined on a case-by-case basis. The three Ps – partnership, participation and protection – are the most well-known principles. Together they ensure Māori opportunities to provide input into decision-making and require the government to protect rangatiratanga (Māori authority).

  • Partnership: the Treaty created a relationship between Māori and the Crown and both parties must act with the utmost good faith. 
  • Participation: the Crown will provide tāngata whenua with opportunities to engage with decision making processes at all levels.
  • Protection: active protection of Māori interests, rights, taonga and rangatiratanga must be a government priority.

Some other principles include kāwanatanga (the Crown’s right to govern), equality, redress, cooperation (concerning common issues), consultation, development (applying the Treaty to modern resources/technology) and informed decision making. Others include the Crown’s obligation to act in the best interests of Māori and that the law affirms iwi control of their taonga.

Who created the principles?

They were developed by academics (particularly historians), lawyers, judges and other experts employed by the courts or Waitangi Tribunal, alongside government officials and politicians. 

Historian Aroha Harris says the principles ensure a greater official acknowledgement of Te Tiriti. (Photo: University of Auckland)

Who supports the principles?

Typically, the government supports the principles. Why? Because they don’t go as far as the text of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The principles allow the government to work towards its Treaty obligations without allowing Māori full sovereignty, as Te Tiriti promised.

Alongside the government, some kaumātua Māori support the principles. To some kaumātua, the introduction of the principles advanced the rights of Te Tiriti during the Māori renaissance. Tipene O’Regan, the former Ngāi Tahu chief Treaty negotiator, reiterated his fondness for the principles at te hui aa motu

Plenty of academics also support the principles, including Auckland University historian and former Waitangi Tribunal member Aroha Harris. Last year, she told The Spinoff that the principles provide high-level guidance to honour the Treaty. The Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa historian teaches her classes that although they aren’t perfect, the principles represent a greater government acknowledgement of Te Tiriti than would exist without them.

Who rejects the principles?

Usually, those who oppose the principles are Māori (particularly pakeke and rangatahi) who think they don’t go far enough and get in the way of mana motuhake (Māori self-government). For example, the principle of Crown-Māori partnership, which often looks like co-governance, is minuscule compared to the tino rangatiratanga Te Tiriti promised.

However, alongside Māori who reject the principles for not doing enough, many conservative organisations, including the Act Party, are opposed to the principles. Act leader David Seymour says the suggestion the Treaty calls for a Crown-Māori partnership twists the meaning of our constitutional foundation. Seymour’s sentiments are not new political criticisms, as former National and then Act leader Don Brash echoed them during his infamous 2004 Ōrewa speech and the “Iwi V Kiwi” 2005 election

Why are they a political hot potato right now?

It is largely thanks to the government’s rhetoric, particularly Act’s. Seymour has repeatedly called for what he calls a “mature conversation” about the role of Te Tiriti in Aotearoa, including streamlining and rewriting the principles. 

What is the ‘Treaty Principles Bill’?

This bill is Act’s proposal to rewrite the principles. The bill seeks to replace the many existing principles developed over five decades with three streamlined ones. On January 19, Act’s principles were leaked, and they are: 

  1. Kawanatanga katoa o o ratou whenua: the New Zealand Government has the right to govern all New Zealanders 
  2. Ki nga tangata katoa o Nu Tireni te tino rangatiratanga o o ratou whenua o rataou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa: the New Zealand government will honour all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and property
  3. A ratou nga tikanga katoa rite tahi: all New Zealanders are equal under the law with the same rights and duties

The justice ministry warned that Act’s principles are “not supported by either the spirit of the Treaty or the text of the Treaty”, and Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said they were disturbing, horrific and “utterly racist”. She added that when “you say to everybody we’re all one”, it comes at the expense of Māori. Academics are also concerned. Massey University historian Michael Belgrave told The Spinoff last year, “Anyone who knows anything about this topic wouldn’t come up with this policy,” adding that Act “don’t have any understanding of the 50 years of Treaty principles debate”.

What’s in store for the principles in the future, then?

Despite being part of Act’s coalition deal, Christopher Luxon and senior National ministers have said they will not support the Treaty Principles Bill past a first reading, meaning it is unlikely to become law. But National hasn’t ruled it out definitively. However, at te hui aa motu, Māori-Crown relations/Māori Development minister Tama Potaka called Act’s rewriting of the principles unhelpful and divisive. 

Keep going!