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Are we bad faith Treaty partners again?

Bishop John Bluck – who backed this Church's three-tikanga constitution in the early 1990s – sees plenty to concern Anglicans in the new Government's line on Māori-Pākehā relations.
• What if the Treaty had been honoured? -E Tangata

John Bluck  |  05 Dec 2023

A seismic shift hit New Zealand on Black Friday and the jolt is only beginning to be felt. It had nothing to do with earthquakes, everything to do with the new coalition government’s unintended consequence of setting our race relations back 50 years.

A lava flow of reaction from Māori is already flowing, but so far there’s only been a trickle from Pākehā whose response is slower and more ambivalent. Maybe that’s because the announcement was so cleverly muted. Not a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi but merely a first reading and select committee hearing on a Treaty Principles Bill. And that can only have a positive effect, says Mr Seymour.

And as for reversing the order of names on public signage to ensure English before Māori, and removing Treaty references from 50 years of legislation, or cancelling co-governance from public service delivery, well, what’s the harm? Is John Campbell getting carried away to call it the “coalition’s heart of darkness”?

Most Pākehā don’t seem to see this as any sort of betrayal of promises. Perhaps that’s because we haven’t read our colonial history closely enough. After all, it’s only just beginning to be taught in our schools.

In simplest summary form, it’s a history of signing a unique treaty in a partnership of good faith with the people who owned the land; then almost immediately breaking the treaty, eventually declaring it null and void and ignoring it for a hundred years, until 1975.

That year, as a Māori renaissance gathered force, Parliament passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act and then gradually embedded multiple Treaty references into law on everything from fishing to land and language.

In 1987, our highest ranking judge declared the Treaty to be our “compact of mutual obligation”. That’s what it has been slowly becoming until Black Friday, when all of that was up for review. Nearly half a century of momentum stopped dead. Why no outcry?

Perhaps it’s about not knowing how to read that Treaty history. The Māori leaders saw the document they signed as not only a legal contract but even more importantly a sacred covenant, translated as it was with words borrowed from the Bible.

And when the sacred promises were broken, rewritten, and finally made void, Māori understandably felt betrayed . The reputation of missionaries who had supported the Treaty never recovered.

What seems to be missing in the Black Friday words about Treaty revision, renaming, and non cogoverning is any sense of the explosive material we’re dealing with.

It is about laws and contracts and policy principles, but much more than that, it is about the power of symbol, hard won trust, and relationships long forged. It’s about promises made over nearly two hundred years of living together. Promises broken, betrayed and then since 1975, ever so , ever so slowly redeemed.

Hopefully, Anglicans understand that better than most. Our history as a church mirrors that pattern. We began as essentially a Māori church at the time of the Treaty we helped to broker, then became a settler church where the Māori voice and leadership was lost for nearly 150 years. In 1992 we adopted a constitution that is still a pioneering model of cogovernance and Treaty respect. Ten years later we reaffirmed and strengthened those Treaty references. Anglicans worked hard to promote the model to the nation without success, long before He Puapua talked about constitutional reform.

On Black Friday, that conversation was cut dead, Treaty references are to be culled, cogovernance is off the public service agenda.

All of which leaves Anglicans out of favour, again. We shouldn’t be surprised, any more than early missionaries and bishops like Selwyn and Hadfield were threatened by angry settlers to be run out of town for their Māori sympathies.

We talk about the Treaty as a taonga. Even Mr Seymour owns it as our founding document. Our Magna Carta no less. If you choose to throw a taonga into the bear pit of a select committee review with still the hint of a referendum hanging over, don’t be surprised if the treasure gets damaged.

And if that happens, be ready to ride the whirlwind.


John Bluck is the retired Bishop of Waiapu and the author of Becoming Pākehā – a journey between two cultures (2022 HarperCollins).