Story: Treaty of Waitangi
Page 7 – Honouring the treaty – 1940 to 2000s
After the Second World War public awareness of the treaty continued to expand as a result of annual commemorations at Waitangi. These events focused on the positive aspects of the treaty relationship, which were celebrated as evidence of New Zealand’s race relations – claimed to be the world’s finest. Complexities and contradictions in the treaty relationship were rarely mentioned.
Loss of Māori land
Land grievances continued to be a sore point with Māori in the 1950s and 1960s. The Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 made it easier for the government to compulsorily acquire ‘uneconomic interests’ (small blocks or undeveloped land) in Māori land. In 1975, under the leadership of Northland kuia (female elder) Whina Cooper, Māori marched from the far north to Parliament in Wellington to protest against the loss of Māori land. The march drew public attention to the treaty as the cornerstone of the Māori relationship with the Crown.
Waitangi Day, 6 February, was first officially recognised as New Zealand’s national day in 1960. In 1963 Waitangi Day became a public holiday in Northland. It was made a nationwide public holiday in 1974 and renamed New Zealand Day. Its name reverted to Waitangi Day in 1976.
In the 1970s and 1980s protests at Waitangi revealed the gap between Māori understanding of the treaty and that of the government and most of the non-Māori community. These conflicting meanings gained more prominence from 1974 when 6 February, the date of the first treaty signing, became a public holiday. Waitangi Day protests grew larger and more vehement, and were seen throughout the country on television news broadcasts.
Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975
For many years Māori MPs had pressed for the treaty to have statutory recognition, since it had no legal authority unless incorporated into New Zealand law. With the aim of improving relationships between the Crown and Māori, the government passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. This established the Waitangi Tribunal and began a radical shift in the role of the treaty in the nation’s life.
The Waitangi Tribunal was formed as a permanent commission of inquiry to consider claims by Māori that the Crown had breached principles of the treaty. The tribunal could also make recommendations to government on its findings from claim hearings. However, its jurisdiction was initially restricted to hearing claims dating from 1975, and for some years it had very little social and political influence.
In 1985 the tribunal’s jurisdiction was extended to cover Crown acts and omissions since the signing of the treaty in 1840. This opened up the nation’s historical record of Crown–Māori relationships to intense scrutiny. Further amendments to the Treaty of Waitangi Act expanded the tribunal’s membership and extended its capacity for research, hearings and report writing.
Principles of the treaty
From the mid-1980s several dozen new acts of Parliament included references to the Treaty of Waitangi. As with the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, each of these acts referred (with some variation) to the principles of the treaty. These acts allowed the courts to interpret the extent to which treaty principles are raised in any case covered by the legislation. This legal recognition has had far-reaching consequences for government agencies and throughout local government.
The treaty in daily life
The legislation giving legal force to, and acknowledgment of, the Treaty of Waitangi catapulted the treaty into public notice in ways that stunned and surprised many New Zealanders. The sudden prominence of the treaty in daily life sparked the need for treaty awareness workshops and led historians, lawyers and scholars to challenge accepted views of a benevolent treaty history and good Crown–Māori relations.
Successive governments have continued addressing the challenge of securing the treaty’s original aim – to reconcile the Crown and Māori. This has included projects to give all New Zealanders an understanding of a national vision of two peoples under the treaty.