Don Brash and Dr Michael Bassett discuss the rationale behind Hobson's Pledge, the Treaty and sovereignty

Over recent months, I’ve talked to a number of friends who disagree with what Hobson’s Pledge is trying to achieve.  They have accepted the “current orthodoxy” that Maori chiefs really didn’t cede sovereignty when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, or perhaps didn’t understand that that was what they were doing; and that because the Treaty created a “partnership” between Maori and the Crown, this entitles the descendants of those who signed the Treaty to some special political status nearly 180 years later. 

I attempted to distil the views of these friends into four questions and put them to noted historian Dr Michael Bassett, himself a member of the Fourth Labour Government and a member of the Waitangi Tribunal for 10 years from 1994.  He was kind enough to answer all of them.

Q1. Did Maori chiefs cede sovereignty to the British Crown when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi or, as is now contended by some, did they not?

Michael Bassett: There has been some debate over the years about what, exactly, Maori believed they were signing in 1840 as Claudia Orange shows in her big book published in 1987 called "The Treaty of Waitangi".  Historians have chosen to work from a translation of the Maori version of the Treaty believing that to be the only fair basis for assessing the degree of Maori understanding.  Sir Apirana Ngata prepared an English translation of the Treaty in 1922 that argued that the Chiefs had “cede(d) absolutely to the Queen of England for ever the Government of all their lands”.  By the time I chaired the 1990 Commission and then served for a decade on the Waitangi Tribunal (1994-2004), the standard translation we used throughout our deliberations had been made by Professor Sir Hugh Kawharu.  Here is his full translation of the Treaty:

“The first: The chiefs of the Confederation and all the Chiefs who have not joined that Confederation give absolutely to the Queen of England for ever the complete government over their land.

“The second: The Queen of England agrees to protect the Chiefs, the Subtribes and all the people of New Zealand in the unqualified exercise of their chieftainship over their lands, villages and all their treasures.  But on the other hand the Chiefs of the Confederation and all the Chiefs will sell land to the Queen at a price agreed by the person owning it and by the person buying it (the latter being) appointed by the Queen as her purchase agent.

“The third: For this agreed arrangement therefore concerning the Government of the Queen, the Queen of England will protect all the ordinary people of New Zealand (i.e. the Maori) and will give them the same rights and duties of citizenship as the people of England.”

Sir Hugh and the Tribunal in my time were in no doubt that the chiefs had ceded sovereignty to the Queen.  A few inventive minds have more recently tried to dispute this, but after 170 plus years of acceptance there would seem to me as an historian to be a degree of futility, not to say deliberate trouble-making, in trying after all these years to upset what has been accepted by both Maori and Pakeha for so long.

Q2. Does the Treaty of Waitangi imply some kind of “partnership” between those New Zealanders with a Maori ancestor and the Crown (now represented by Her Majesty’s New Zealand Government), implying a qualitatively different relationship between those who chance to have a Maori ancestor and the rest of us? 

MB: If ever there was a declaration that we are one people and that Maori have the same rights and duties of citizenship, surely it is Sir Hugh’s translation of the Treaty’s third clause?  

It needs to be remembered that right from the beginning there was a problem defining who was a Maori.  Intermarriage and co-habitation had started before the Treaty.  Governments determined from early times, and this was defined in law, that a Maori was someone who was a half caste or more.  That was important in defining whether someone was eligible to enrol on the Maori Roll for electoral purposes, or was obliged to enrol on the General roll. The problem was that fewer and fewer people had sufficient Maori blood to be eligible to enrol on the Maori rolls, and the rolls had a total of many fewer names on them than the rolls for general seats. The turnouts of Maori voters became conspicuously smaller than in general seats. No one checked as to whether anyone possessed sufficient Maori blood to satisfy the legal definition, and it would have been impossible to do so. 

In the Maori Purposes Act 1974, the definition of a Maori was altered. “Maori means a person of the Maori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a person”.  This was a controversial decision by the Kirk Labour Government and over the years it has enabled many people who are almost entirely of Pakeha ancestry to claim to be Maori if they wish to.  One suspects that neither the Crown nor the Maori signatories of the Treaty in 1840 would have anticipated or accepted such an extension of the Treaty’s provisions.  But then, as many historians will attest, few treaties last 177 years, and there is only one between some tribes somewhere in Afghanistan, I’m told, that lasted through a war. 

Some efforts have been made to argue that some kind of “partnership" exists between the Crown and Maori, but no one has tried so far as I know to determine whether either of the signatories had in mind a “partnership" between the Crown and someone who is, say, one sixty- fourth Maori, as many New Zealanders are today.

In any event, Sir Hugh’s translation of Article 3 surely rules out any special relationship/privilege for Maori or for their modern descendants over non-Maori.  And since there was no such thing as a properly functioning democracy either in England or in New Zealand in 1840, the question of “political rights” wasn’t an issue at the time. Are some people just trying to re-write the Treaty to suit their current agendas?

Q3. Does the Treaty of Waitangi, Article 3 of which (in every version of the Treaty) guaranteed the “rights and privileges of British subjects” to all New Zealanders, imply that those with a Maori ancestor should have different political rights to those enjoyed by other New Zealanders?

MB: From Sir Hugh Kawharu’s translation of the Treaty above, there most certainly was no implication of special rights, “political” or otherwise for Maori.  Their land was protected, but so was the right of Maori to sell that land on agreed terms.  And Maori had the same “rights and duties of citizenship” as non-Maori.

Q4. In a society with many scores of ethnicities, is it conducive to social harmony to accord special political status to those with a Maori ancestor?

MB: The desirability of racial harmony is the biggest issue for your friends – indeed for all New Zealanders – to think about.  For me, having lived in the southern states (the ex-slave states) of the US, and having visited and taught South African history over the years, I know of no examples of the concept of nationhood or unity being enhanced in any society by a government allowing one set of privileges denied to others on racial grounds.  Apart from which, with Maori rapidly losing their original visual distinction, how can the rest of society work out who is entitled to any special treatment?  Special privileges for some will inevitably encourage the less scrupulous in society to join them. Where does that lead us?  And who benefits from the fraud?

Michael Bassett




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