New Zealand 'settled peacefully' - PM

New Zealand was "settled peacefully" by the British, the prime minister says, despite thousands dying in the land wars after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

In an interview on Northland's Te Hiku Radio yesterday, John Key addressed the Waitangi Tribunal's finding that the Maori chiefs did not cede sovereignty to Britain when they signed the Treaty in 1840.

The report did not affect the Government's authority to rule over New Zealand, Key said.

The tribunal last week found the rangatira, or Maori leaders, who signed te Tiriti o Waitangi agreed to share power and authority with Britain, but did not give up sovereignty to the British Crown.

Key said iwi still had a role - including in co-governance of the Waikato River and having input into planning decisions - but the Crown was now the body responsible for governing New Zealand.

Issues over the translation of words such as kawanatanga (governance), used in the Maori text of the treaty, had to be examined in the context of what was happening at the time.

"In my view New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world that were settled peacefully," he said.  

"Maori probably acknowledge that settlers had a place to play and brought with them a lot of skills and a lot of capital."

Key's comments inspired social media users to parody his sense of history today under the hashtag #johnkeyhistory.

Key also told Te Hiku he hoped the tribunal's finding would not slow progress towards a Treaty settlement in the north, because the region needed settlement money for economic development.

The settlement process remained necessary because the Crown had failed to honour all of its responsibilities under the Treaty, he said.

Stage one of the Waitangi Tribunal 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.

Stage two will consider events after February 1840.

The tribunal said: "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."

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 tribunal report said.

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