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  • Writer's pictureTamara Bisseker

Toitū Te Tiriti o Waitangi

This piece was inspired when I began researching the content for our Waitangi Day social media post, which you can find across our various social media channels (LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram). I don’t claim in any way to be an expert in this area, but our research gathered too much information to distill down to half a dozen social media slides. As it is, the information that we didn’t include about Te Rōpū Whakamana i te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Waitangi Tribunal) barely scratches the surface in terms of the detailed ins and outs of what they do. However, in light of the growing kōrero (which is still ongoing) hopefully some more pieces of information might help when you end up having a politely robust conversation with a work colleague, acquaintance or whānau member.

Public discourse led by government coalition partners kickstarted an argument that the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi have never been defined and, as such, reference to them should be removed from legislation.


The flagpole at Waitangi and the grounds.
The famous flagpole and grounds

Enter Te Rōpū Whakamana i te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Waitangi Tribunal) whose literal mandate since 1975 is to define these principles. The Waitangi Tribunal was established by the government of the day with the task of determining the meaning and effect of Te Tiriti.

The issue? Some members of the current government have been questioning the legitimacy of the tribunal itself, making public musings such as, "What gives the Waitangi Tribunal the belief that its power is greater than the voting democratic will of Kiwis?"

The answer? Because voting (the most famous function of democracy) is only one aspect of a democratic society.

The person who asked this question seems to have forgotten that participation is an essential part of democracy, and public participation is a key function of the Waitangi Tribunal.

The tribunal assesses and processes claims put forward by Māori regarding allegations that the Crown has breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi by particular actions, inactions, laws or policies and that Māori have suffered as a result.

For almost 50 years the Waitangi Tribunal has been examining and defining Te Tiriti principles, presided over by judges with evidence from some of New Zealand’s greatest historians of the time. While their recommendations are not necessarily binding, it is hard to ignore the thoroughness of the process by which they reach their conclusions. The proposed Treaty Principles bill would undermine and ignore all this mahi, and severely impact all the evidence and mātauranga that has been collected over the past five decades.


It would mean a lot of legal uncertainty as a change in the understanding of Te Tiriti would affect legislative acts, policy documents and contracts. Courts would have to be engaged to re-determine the meaning of Te Tiriti terms as directed by parliament, and this is likely to be different than what has been understood from the past 40 to 50 years. Furthermore, our current western political institution may lose its legal standing, given that the signing and implementation of Te Tiriti was what allowed for its establishment.

Those who have been concerned with how much the previous government spent should make no mistake – changing, redefining or re-Interpreting the terms of Te Tiriti would come at a huge cost.

What we have now is not a perfect system, but it's the one that exists and it's the one that the foundations of our country's democracy sit on. As time goes by, inroads are made in refining our understanding of what was agreed to, what was said, and most importantly what actions need to be changed or established to ensure that our society and communities operate according to Te Tiriti principles and terms. To me, this is what our government should be focusing on, and while we still have their word that the proposed referendum will not go past the select committee stage, it's hard to overlook a history of broken promises, some more recent than others. One thing that is for sure is that Māori and Tangata Tiriti are united stronger then ever.

Our promise is that our voices will be heard.

Nā Tamara Bisseker



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