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The Treaty in practice

Page 6 – The Treaty debated

Before the 1940s, Māori and Pākehā worlds were largely separate. Wartime work took Māori to towns and cities. About 75% of Māori lived in rural areas before the Second World War; by the 1960s, about 60% were in urban areas. Māori enjoyed the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, but they were among the first to feel the pinch of the economic downturn of the 1970s.  A new generation of urban and well-educated Māori challenged what they saw as the failure of governments to honour the Treaty. Some called the Treaty a fraud. The stage was set for intense public discussion of the Treaty in modern New Zealand and whether the country did have the 'best race relations in the world'.

Māori politics

Māori politics took on a sharper edge from the 1970s. Land grievances remained a sore point, not only for historical reasons. The Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967 caused particular discontent. It brought in compulsory 'improvement' of Māori lands, including the extension of provisions first introduced in 1953 for the compulsory acquisition of 'uneconomic interests' in land. This ignored the fact that such lands were often the last fragments connecting their owners to their turangawaewae (their place to stand or homeland). Such policies might have been well-intentioned, but to many Māori they were outdated and paternalistic, making no allowance for cultural and spiritual links to the land.

Nga Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) was one of the new groups that questioned racial politics. This Auckland-based student movement took its lead from liberation struggles elsewhere. In 1971 members disrupted events on Waitangi Day, and the next year they staged a walkout from the ceremony at Waitangi. Some Māori elders disagreed with these tactics. Yet even those who advocated a more dignified and conciliatory approach agreed that there were serious grievances to be addressed.

In 1975 a wide range of Māori came together under the leadership of Whina Cooper, a respected Northland kuia (elder). At the end of a month-long journey from Te Hapua in the Far North, thousands assembled outside Parliament to protest against the ongoing loss of Māori land. The hikoi or land march united many Māori and supporters in the fight for Māori land.

Between 1977 and 1978 members of Ngati Whatua occupied land at Bastion Point, Orakei, for 506 days. The occupation ended in a dramatic eviction by the police. The Crown later admitted the land had been unfairly acquired from the tribe. This event highlighted the ongoing depth of historical grievances, as did other protests relating to lands at Raglan and elsewhere.

Re-examining the Treaty

The hikoi and other developments surprised many Pākehā. They were used to hearing of New Zealand's so-called good race relations. Many now learned that Māori did not share this view. They also learned that the Treaty of Waitangi was more than a historical curiosity, and for Māori, it was the cornerstone of their relationship with the Crown.

Pākehā began to attend Treaty awareness workshops. Scholars challenged the accepted view of New Zealand's race relations history. By the 1980s books on the Treaty and related subjects appeared on best-seller lists. Some people disagreed, but increasing numbers of Pākehā supported Māori calls for the Treaty to be honoured.

In 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal was formed to investigate Māori grievances. It had the power to make findings of fact and recommendations, not binding decisions. The tribunal began hearings in 1977, but at first it could only investigate grievances that had occurred since 1975. In 1985 a law change allowed the tribunal to consider Māori grievances dating back to 1840. The hearing and settlement of historical claims would become a major focus of Māori energies, and some landmark settlements and decisions have been made.

The Crown came to permit direct negotiations that bypassed the Waitangi Tribunal. In 1988 the Treaty of Waitangi Policy Unit (later the Office of Treaty Settlements) was formed within the Department of Justice. Its role was to advise on policy and assist in negotiations and litigation of Māori claims in the courts and at the Waitangi Tribunal.

Since the 1980s governments have accepted the need to resolve historical Māori grievances in accordance with the terms of the Treaty. Many people have reflected on the Treaty, the relations between Māori and Pākehā and the role of biculturalism in modern New Zealand. Some think that the emphasis on the Treaty since the 1970s causes divisions in a nation once famous for its positive race relations. Others, including many Māori, argue that it is precisely because the Treaty was ignored that divisions occurred. Importantly, there has been dialogue. If Māori and Pākehā had at times talked past one another, in the late 20th century they were at least facing the issues. People in New Zealand should only worry if the talking ends.

How to cite this page

The Treaty debated, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated