Treaty of Waitangi denialism: a long, dark and absurd history

Building magnate Sir William Gallagher’s recent comments calling the Treaty of Waitangi a ‘fraud’ have been roundly condemned. But he’s not the first to believe it, writes Scott Hamilton.

Sir William Gallagher knows a lot about fences. He joined his father’s fencing business in 1962, and has turned it into a multinational company that he still chairs. Last Friday Gallagher was the guest speaker at a function for business people in Hamilton.

Explaining that his expertise extends beyond business to New Zealand history, Gallagher began to tell his audience about the Treaty of Waitangi, and about the relationship between Pākehā and Māori.

Gallagher called the official version of the Treaty, which is displayed at the National Library in Wellington, a “fraud”. He said that the true Treaty extinguished the sovereignty of Māori, brought British law to the whole of New Zealand, and made Māori and Pākehā equal in the eyes of that law. Gallagher condemned the notion that the Treaty involved a partnership between Māori and the Crown, and lamented the settlements for breaches of the Treaty that a series of iwi have received over the last quarter of a century. He warned that Māori “separatism’”was creating “apartheid” in New Zealand, and claimed that non-Māori risked losing all their rights, including even their rights to visit the country’s beaches.

Some members of Gallagher’s audience walked out before he had finished his speech. The Institute of Directors, which had asked him to speak, has apologised for any offence his words caused. But Gallagher himself is unbowed. He has, he told one reporter, done “a lot of research” into New Zealand history, and can provide “credible sources” for his claims.

And Gallagher is right to insist that he did not invent the ideas in his speech. When he addressed the Waikato business community he was drawing on a body of argument that has been built over the last 30 years, in a series of self-published books, small magazines, and websites.

The best-known advocate of the argument Gallagher made is Don Brash. Brash nearly won the 2005 general election for National by promising to end Māori “separatism”; today he’s a spokesperson for Hobson’s Pledge, an organisation that fights the same scourge.

Like Gallagher, Brash believes the Māori chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi gave up all of their legal powers and submitted unequivocally to British authority. Their submission was well understood at the time, and was accepted for nearly 150 years, until a small but powerful alliance of “politically correct” academics, Labour Party politicians, and “Māori radicals” decided in the mid-1980s that the Treaty involved a partnership between Pākehā and Māori, and that Māori had the right to legal redress for breaches of this partnership. Since then, a series of laws have divided Māori and Pākehā, and disadvantaged the Pākehā majority. The Māori Language Act, for example, opened the way to the establishment of kindergartens and schools where teachers and students use te reo Māori, and also brought the Māori tongue onto television and radio. Brash laments these developments, because he believes they undermine the cohesion that the English language has created in New Zealand since 1840.

Brash’s arguments about New Zealand history immediately raise a series of questions. In 1840 the British presence in New Zealand amounted to a few administrators and a score of often drunken soldiers hunkered down in the far north of the country. Would Māori chiefs really have decided to surrender all their powers to this handful of foreigners? If the British intended the Treaty to establish ‘one law for all’ in New Zealand, as Brash claims, why did they create, in 1841, separate courts for Māori and Pākehā? And if the Treaty had extinguished all forms of Māori authority, why did the 1852 Constitution Act, which the British composed when settlers were about to elect their first government, allow for iwi to run their own courts and make their own laws within their various rohe?

“There’s 2000 of you and 70,000 of us but uh, sure… you be in charge of all of it.” – said no one ever. Image: ‘Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi’ by Marcus King, Alexander Turnbull Library

If, as Brash claims, Māori accepted the loss of their sovereignty after 1840, how can we explain the King Movement, and the Waikato War that the settlers fought in 1863 and ‘64 against that movement? The supporters of the Kingitanga liked to invoke the Treaty of Waitangi, as they justified their king’s claim to authority over large parts of the central North Island. The premier who invaded the Waikato, Alfred Dommett, hated the Treaty, because he saw it as a barrier to the establishment of settler control over Māori.

But Brash and his co-thinkers do not address any of these messy details of history, when they defend their reading of the Treaty of Waitangi. When he is interviewed about his work for Hobson’s Pledge, Brash likes to quote the third article of the English version of the Treaty, and its statement that “Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects”. For Brash, these words confirm that the Treaty places all New Zealanders, whether Māori or non-Māori, in the same constitutional category. When he makes this claim, though, Brash forgets that, in 1840, the term ‘New Zealanders’ referred exclusively to Māori. The non-Māori population of these islands was tiny, and the chiefs who signed the Treaty had no idea that hundreds of thousands of migrants would eventually arrive from Britain.

Armed with his reductive and tendentious interpretation of the Treaty, Brash ignores the complex history of nineteenth century New Zealand, with its constitutional crises and rival sovereignties and wars.

When he made his speech last Friday, Sir William Gallagher relied on Brash and Hobson’s Pledge, but also on a conspiracy theory that has become increasingly popular amongst conservative Pākehā. This theory was created in the nineties by a circle of right-wing activists that included Martin Doutre, a self-styled astro-archaeologist who claimed to have discovered the ruins of a series of ancient European civilisations in the New Zealand countryside, and Allan Titford, a Northland farmer whose house had burned down after he had argued with the local Te Roroa iwi about their Treaty claim. Doutre and Titford were both supporters of the One New Zealand Foundation, a Northland-based outfit founded to fight “Māori apartheid”.

When a draft text of the Treaty of Waitangi was discovered in a Pukekohe house owned by the Littlewood family in 1992, Doutre and Titford decided it was the final, authentic version of the Treaty’s English text, and that the official English language version of the Treaty that was signed on February 6th, 1840 was bogus.

More conventional historians examined the so-called “Littlewood Treaty”, and decided that it was an early version of the final document, written by James Busby, an assistant to Governor Hobson, after preliminary discussions with some Māori chiefs. They pointed out that after 1840 both Busby and Governor Hobson gave several accounts of their roles in the signing of the Treaty, and yet never gave the impression that the English text signed on February the 6th was in any way inauthentic.

But Doutre and Titford insisted that historians were conspiring to deny the truth about the Littlewood Treaty, because the truth threatened the interests of Māori, academics, civil servants, and other beneficiaries of what they called the “Treaty gravy train”. Doutre and Titford were excited by the fact that the Littlewood Treaty, unlike the Treaty signed on February the 6th, 1840, didn’t mention that Māori should have control of their forests and fisheries.

They also enthused over a sentence that said the “Queen of England confirms and guarantees…to all the people of New Zealand the possession of their lands, dwellings, and all their property”. For Doutre and Titford, these words seemed to be aimed at the non-Māori as well as Māori inhabitants of these islands. If the Littlewood Treaty were accepted, the One New Zealand Foundation claimed, then all notions of a partnership between Māori and the Crown would have to be abandoned, along with all of the Treaty-based legislation created since the mid-‘80s.

Dedicated Treaty denier Allan Titford was jailed for 24 years in 2013 for a raft of charges including rape and arson.

In 2006, Te Papa, the Turnbull Library and the National Archive used a large covered trailer to create a travelling exhibition called Treaty 2 U, which featured displays about the Treaty of Waitangi and 19th century artifacts. The exhibition spent four months visiting towns and cities around New Zealand.

Titford, Doutre, and One New Zealand Foundation leader Ross Baker created their own travelling roadshow in the back of a Land Rover owned by Titford. Following the Treaty 2 U trailer from place to place, they handed out copies of the Littlewood Treaty. For the counter-exhibitors, Treaty 2 U was a “travelling pandemonium show” organised by the “well-funded Maori grievance industry”.

It is difficult to argue with a conspiracy theorist, because the conspiracy theorist is liable to see a critic as part of the conspiracy they deplore. Paul Moon was one historian who tried to reason with the claims that the One New Zealand Foundation and its supporters made about the Littlewood Treaty. In a series of emails that were published on the One New Zealand Foundation website, Moon pointed out that the Littlewood document could not be a treaty, because it was never signed. He also noted that terms like “people of New Zealand” referred, in 1840, to Māori only. In response, Ross Baker accused Moon of being part of the conspiracy to rewrite New Zealand history. When Moon stopped replying to his emails, Baker proclaimed this as proof that the historian had been “gotten to”. Moon had been pressured into silence, Baker said, by the secret enforcers of the conspiracy.

In 2013 the Northland District Court found Allan Titford guilty of rape, arson, perjury, and child abuse. Titford’s wife had told the court that he had burned down his own home, then blamed it on Māori. He had kept her captive for years, raped her repeatedly, and beaten his children. Titford was sentenced to 24 years in prison. This year Titford’s lawyers appealed against his conviction. Titford, they explained, suffers from a “querulous paranoia” that makes him imagine sinister conspiracies. Titford had been too paranoid, his lawyers argued, to stand trial. The appeal was rejected, and Titford sits in Rimutaka prison.

For the likes of Martin Doutre and Ross Baker, Allan Titford’s downfall only showed the scope and power of the conspiracy to rewrite New Zealand history. The One New Zealand Foundation’s website calls Titford a “political prisoner”, and says that the state should never have become involved in his “matrimonial dispute”. “Wake up sheeple!” Martin Doutre shouts, at the end of an internet polemic in defence of his friend.

When Sir William Gallagher called the copy of the Treaty of Waitangi displayed at National Library a “fraud” in his recent speech, he was repeating the claims made by the advocates of the Littlewood document. The paranoia of Titford, Doutre, and Baker has spread from the extreme right and infected an apparently respectable Waikato business leader.

Conspiracy theories have also infected Hobson’s Pledge, a much larger and more sophisticated organisation than the One New Zealand Foundation. I was recently contacted by Chuck Bird, a disillusioned member of Brash’s group. Bird had read a report I had written about the racist material – odes to apartheid in southern Africa, derogatory jokes about Māori – appearing on the Facebook page of Hobson’s Pledge. Bird said that he had been banned from the group’s Facebook page because he had stated that Allan Titford was a convicted rapist. He pointed out that two of the twelve official spokespeople of Hobson’s Pledge, Mike Butler and Andy Oakley, have stated publicly that they think Titford was the innocent victim of a conspiracy.

How can we understand the ideas that Sir William Gallagher aired in his speech last Friday? Although the likes of Don Brash, Martin Doutre, and Allan Titford claim to champion New Zealand’s history against those who would disguise or distort it, I think that their obsessions reveal a radical lack of interest in our past, and a desire to shut down discussion about the meaning of that past.

Like all historical documents, from the Bible to the American Constitution to the Communist Manifesto, the Treaty of Waitangi has always been, and will always be, interpreted in different ways. It was the product of a particular historical moment, and meant different things to the different people who designed and signed it. It has since been read differently by different people at different times. The Treaty does not have, and cannot have, a single, obvious, irrevocable meaning.

To understand the Treaty and its many interpretations, we must understand New Zealand history in all its complexity. We have to make an effort to understand the lives and the ideas of the British administrators who wrote the document and the Māori who signed it. We must try to understand the Māori nationalists who saw the Treaty as a charter for self-government in the 1860s, and the settler politicians who loathed the document. And we have to try to understand our fellow New Zealanders today, when they offer their various interpretations of the Treaty.

But Brash and co want to turn away from the complexity of our history, and proclaim a single, politically convenient, and unchanging meaning for the Treaty. They are like religious fundamentalists, seizing on a sacred text and insisting that we accept their interpretation of it. When they are faced with opposing interpretations, then they can only assume that the people offering these interpretations must be part of some sinister conspiracy. Their paranoia flows logically from their narrow-mindedness.

Sir William Gallagher has looked in the wrong place for his understanding of New Zealand history.

Editor’s note, 29/11/2017: an earlier version of this story stated that the Treaty of Waitangi was on display at Te Papa. It is currently on display at the National Library in Wellington.


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