Maori did not give up sovereignty: Waitangi Tribunal

NO CHANGE: "There is no question that the Crown has sovereignty in New Zealand," said Chris Finlayson, Minister of ...
Scott Hammond

NO CHANGE: "There is no question that the Crown has sovereignty in New Zealand," said Chris Finlayson, Minister of Treaty Negotiations.

A Treaty expert says he is shocked by parts of a landmark ruling on the Treaty of Waitangi that says Maori did not agree to cede sovereignty over New Zealand.

The rangatira, or Maori leaders, who signed te Tiriti o Waitangi in February 1840 agreed to share power and authority with Britain, but did not give up sovereignty to the British Crown, according to stage one of The Waitangi Tribunal's inquiry into Te Paparahi o te Raki (the great land of the north) Treaty claims.

"That is, they did not cede authority to make and enforce law over their people or their territories," the tribunal said.

In a brief statement responding to the report, Attorney-General and Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said: "There is no question that the Crown has sovereignty in New Zealand. This report doesn't change that fact."

The report drew together existing scholarship on the Declaration of Independence and the treaty, with the tribunal noting its report represented continuity rather than dramatic change in current treaty scholarship.

"The tribunal doesn't reach any conclusion regarding the sovereignty the Crown exercises in New Zealand. Nor does it address the other events considered part of the Crown's acquisition of sovereignty or how the treaty relationship should operate today," Finlayson said.

The Government would consider the report as it would any other tribunal report.

* Read the report here

* Q&A: What does it mean

Stage one of today's report looked at the "meaning and effect" of the Treaty in February 1840, when the first signings took place in the Bay of Islands and Hokianga.

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Stage two will consider events after February 1840.

"Though Britain went into the Treaty negotiation intending to acquire sovereignty, and therefore the power to make and enforce law over both Maori and Pakeha, it did not explain this to the rangatira," the tribunal said.

At the time, Britain's representative William Hobson and his agents explained the Treaty as granting Britain "the power to control British subjects and thereby protect Maori," while rangatira were told they would retain their "tino rangatiratanga", or independence and full chiefly authority.

The rangatira consented to the Treaty on the basis that they and the governor were to be equals, each controlling their own people.

How this relationship would work in practice, especially where the Maori and European populations intermingled, was to be negotiated over time on a case-by-case basis, the tribunal said.

It said nothing about how and when the Crown acquired the sovereignty that it exercises today.


The report is being harshly criticised by treaty specialist Professor Paul Moon from the Auckland University of Technology.

"I was shocked by some do the statements contained in the report," he said.

"This is not a concern about some trivial detail, but over the fundamental history of our country, which the tribunal has got manifestly wrong."

He was concerned by the tribunal's statement that Britain went into the treaty negotiation intending to acquire sovereignty, and thus the power to enforce law over both races.

"This is simply not true, and there is an overwhelming body of evidence which proves precisely the opposite. I cannot understand how the tribunal got this so wrong," Moon said.

He was also critical of the importance given by the tribunal to the 1835 Declaration of Independence by the Confederation of United Tribes.

"The tribunal sees the declaration as some profound assertion of Maori sovereignty. However, the declaration had no international status, and was regarded by British officials at the time as 'a silly as well as an unauthorised act.' 

"For some inexplicable reason, the tribunal has again ignored all this evidence," Moon said.

The most concerning aspect of the report was the way the tribunal seemed to be re-writing history with little apparent regard for evidence, he said.

"This report may serve the interests of some groups, but it distorts New Zealand history in the process, and seriously undermines the tribunal's credibility."


Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis said there was a massive cheer at the presentation of the report in Waitangi, when the finding that rangatira who signed the treaty had not ceded sovereignty was read out.

"It's a big day for Ngapuhi," he said.

"The big thing for Ngapuhi is that it affirms what Ngapuhi always said, that when we signed the treaty we didn't cede sovereignty," Davis said.

"It's correcting the historical narrative that's gone on since 1840."

He called for calm and said it was time for "wise heads" to sit down and have a conversation about what the report meant for the country in 2014.

It was not clear what the longer term ramifications would be, Davis said.

While some "red necks" might  view the report as Maori separatism, he believed it could have the opposite effect and bring people together.

Professor Khyla Russell, Otago Polytechnic kaitohutohu (adviser), said the ruling was "a pivotal turning point" and a victory for iwi.

"It does rewrite history in a way Maori have been arguing since 1849 when the claim started," she said.

"But that land is gone now, only a shadow remains."

Russell believed the rangatira would not have signed the Treaty if the word for sovereignty had been used.

"Words to express that did exist in the Maori language," she said.

"It's a personal opinion, but I'll always wonder why those words weren't used.

"They [the rangatira] signed what was in front of them.

"At last, someone has taken a claim over the wording and the Tribunal has made a ruling, a very brave ruling."

 - Stuff


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