Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Tauranga Waitangi Tribunal Claim

I love Tauranga. It has sunshine, productive countryside, beaches, and widespread prosperity amongst Maori and Pakeha. For six years I have been visiting regularly, listening to claims from Maori before the Waitangi Tribunal about how they suffered at the hands of the Crown after the wars of the early 1860s. Some of the claims were real, others fanciful, as I explained in my minority finding released last week along with the Tribunal's Tauranga report. We agree that Maori are owed recompense for injury done to them, but it is my view that the interests of Maori are poorly served by some of the inventive arguments advanced in the majority report. Of course European settlement was sometimes harsh on Maori, but they benefited enormously too, much more than most Tribunal historians are willing to concede. No claimant before us wanted to return to the centuries of inter-tribal warfare, carnage and cannibalism that preceded the signing of the Treaty. That tells its own story.

Between 1840 and 1863 Tauranga Maori were relatively untouched by European settlement. It wasn't until late in the Nineteenth Century that a European presence began to dominate. The town was quite late reaching city status. Several things started the process of Tauranga's integration into the wider colonial world. First was a decision made in 1863 by some Maori to get involved in the Waikato war. That engagement guaranteed retaliation from the Crown. Government forces landed in Tauranga in early 1864. Maori won the first battle at Gate Pa in April, then lost badly at Te Ranga in June. By this time a couple of greedy politicians and several landsharks had their eyes on the area, sensing potential for development. Governor Grey mediated between Maori and those Europeans anxious to enrich themselves. In August 1864 Grey made some very specific promises to Maori about their land. In the circumstances those promises were fair, but they weren't all honoured. While the Crown wanted only 25% of the land on which to settle troops, the area chosen was selected arbitrarily. The process impacted severely on several hapu whose lands were located within the area retained. Moreover, in the process of purchasing a western block of land around Te Puna and Katikati, the Crown's agents failed to consult all Maori with an interest in it. To be fair, the agents tried hard. They paid fairly generously by the standards of the time to those they identified as owners. But some Maori missed out. In other words, a settlement that is over and above the Muldoon Government's parsimonious 1981 award to Tauranga Maori is now warranted.

However, like too much modern Treaty history, the majority Tauranga report takes off into the realms of fancy. It absolves Maori of any responsibility for their involvement in the war, and argues that the Crown could, and should, have forced them to retain all their remaining lands in customary title. It says in effect that the Crown should have prevented them from disposing of any surplus then using the proceeds to assist them meet the Pakeha on equal terms in the new colonial economy. Cloud cuckoo stuff. Just imagine the howls of rage from Maori if they had been denied the same land-selling rights enjoyed by Pakeha. In any event, Article 3 of the Treaty specifically guaranteed Maori the rights of Englishmen.

The worst failing of the majority report is its patronising tone. Maori are always painted as victims, seemingly incapable of making sensible (or foolish) decisions by themselves. In fact there were notable Crown efforts to be fair to Maori. But in the majority report Europeans always fell short of what could reasonably have been expected.

The Waitangi Tribunal legislation of 1985 was designed to heal race relations by making fair settlements. Instead, the majority report, is likely to stoke further grievances and a continuing sense of entitlement amongst Maori, which can only delay the necessary efforts needed to meet their future.

While I hope the Crown is generous to Tauranga Maori, it is surely time to re-examine the Tribunal's usefulness. The captive of crusading historians and those who have built careers out of sowing, then farming grievances, the current body has passed its sell-by date. There is enough evidence to settle all outstanding historical grievances quickly. That process should be completed. What the future relevance of the Treaty might then be requires further public debate. That issue involves all of us, not just the Waitangi industry's vested interests.