Crown/Māori Relations

The Minister for Crown/Māori Relations, Kelvin Davis, is in the middle of a series of consultation hui that is aimed at gathering feedback on the directions and priorities of the government in the new Crown/Māori Relations portfolio.

Here is a short piece I wrote on the possibilities of this portfolio just ahead of Waitangi Day this year, originally published in The DomPost and on :

At this time of year, as we move from the celebrations at Rātana pā to the commemorations of the Treaty signing at Waitangi, the Crown/Māori relationship is inevitably in the spotlight. But there are signs that this year may mark a shift in how the Government views the Treaty partnership – away from seeing it through a lens of historical grievance, claims and contestation.

“Currently, the Crown/Māori relationship is anchored to the negotiating table,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her address to the Federation of Māori Authorities conference in November. “My vision is that we as a country realise the promise of the Treaty… I don’t want this Government to rest until Māori and non-Māori are true partners in Aotearoa. Now, that isn’t just about recognising historic rights or settling historic wrongs, it is about the quality of lives that people live.”

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy echoed these comments in the Speech from the Throne at the State Opening of Parliament: “It is time to start considering what the Treaty relationship might look like after historical grievances are settled. To consider how we, as a nation, can move forward in ways that honour the original Treaty promise.”
One person who will be giving this particular thought is Kelvin Davis, in the newly created role of Minister of Crown/Māori Relations. But what is this new portfolio all about? And will it make a tangible difference?

The basic concept of a Crown/Māori Relations portfolio does seem like an idea whose time has come. There has been considerable focus on the settlement of historical Treaty breaches over the past 25 years. Though many aspects of Crown settlement policy remain highly problematic, this process is necessary to provide remedy and renew the Treaty relationship.

Despite its flaws, it has provided the context in which some innovative co-governance mechanisms have been developed and many constructive relationships established between iwi and government agencies.

But inclusive and effective management of natural resources and mutually beneficial relationships between Māori and government shouldn’t be dependent on the existence of historical breaches of the Treaty. The partnership created by the Treaty was always intended to be much broader than that.

For example, many settlements provide for iwi to have greater input in the delivery of social services to their members. This is a future-focused expression of partnership. It is not redress for historical Treaty breaches, though the impetus might stem from the consequences of historical breaches. It is also relevant to addressing the socioeconomic circumstances of Māori in urban areas, perhaps living outside of their iwi’s traditional territory.

There is no reason to insist on viewing initiatives like this through the lens of iwi claims of Treaty breach or historical reparations. This is not only limiting, but self-defeating. If we take the Treaty partnership seriously, these things should be business as usual for Aotearoa in the 21st century.
This new portfolio clearly creates opportunities for more consistent, more sophisticated, and more effective participation of Māori in public life. According to Ardern, “Te Tiriti o Waitangi must be at the heart of the Crown/Māori relationship. This portfolio represents the opportunity to grow and strengthen this relationship as our country moves into the post-settlement era.”

We will have to wait to see whether the new Government’s actions match the rhetoric.
The proof of the pudding is, as ever, in the eating. But the establishment of the Crown/Māori Relations portfolio should be seen as a positive step. This is a chance to make real, beneficial changes for Māori and for the country as a whole.
The task of getting the policies and practices right in order to fulfil this potential may seem daunting to the new minister and his officials. But they should take heart from the fact we have, in the Treaty, a framework for a respectful and productive partnership as applicable to Crown/Māori relations in the 21st century as it was in 1840.