Chris Ford - 4/24/2006

New Zealand is widely considered to have the best race relations in the world. Yet, 2004 has been the year of race politics in the country. That epithet has been challenged in the past six months to devastating effect. The right-wing National Party opposition, under the new leadership of former central bank governor Don Brash, has indulged in some populist 'wedge' politics as a means of shoring up his party's and the centre-right's poll numbers. Prior to January they had been falling and it seemed inevitable that a centre-left Labour-led government would win the next general election in 2005. Test

Then one steamy southern summer night in late January this year that all changed.

The Orewa speech

It was one speech delivered to a receptive audience of predominantly white, middle-aged, middle class Rotarians in the resort settlement of Orewa, just north of the city of Auckland, which set the New Zealand political scene alight.

In what has become known as the 'Orewa speech', Brash delivered some traditional conservative invective on race relations in terms of analysing them between the nation's two main ethnic groups, namely, Maori and European.

He accused Maori of being the recipients of privilege. He also said that New Zealand was heading down the path of racial separatism for this reason. He cited the numerous government assistance programmes that were available to Maori as an example of this. Moreover, he criticised the nearly 140 year practice of retaining separate parliamentary constituencies for Maori (of which there are currently seven). Furthermore, Brash served up criticism of the so-called Treaty of Waitangi 'grievance industry' in terms of it being an impediment to improving race relations.

The British context

Indeed the Treaty of Waitangi has been used as the convenient lever to pull National and its centre-right political allies up again. It is a treaty that Maori did sign in good faith. It is also a treaty that some of the early British colonists drew up and signed in the humanitarian hope that the Maori people would be protected from the worst ravages of colonialism.

However, the history of the treaty and with it, that of race relations in New Zealand, has followed a similar course to that experienced in other societies that Britain also colonised. This is the case as the UK signed many agreements with indigenous peoples in Africa, North America and the Pacific to facilitate the 'peaceful' settlement of European colonists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instead these agreements were rarely, if ever, adhered to by the UK and its successor settler governments due to the economic, social, political and cultural oppression of indigenous populations.

This desire to mistreat the indigenous nations who became entrapped in the growing British Empire was driven by pure colonial capitalist greed. New Zealand was no exception as the Maori people were to discover. But there was one difference in the case of Maori - they were prepared in the late twentieth century to fight back and in a way that forced the governments of an independent, European-dominated New Zealand to accede to some of their rightful demands.

Maori and first contact

The Maori people had flourished in New Zealand since their ancestors had arrived from Polynesia around 1000AD. Generally, the Maori people were (and still are) economically and socially collectivist. Political authority was hierarchical within each hapu (tribe) resting with hereditary male chiefs. The Maori economy was predominantly based around hunting and gathering from the land and the sea. While inter-tribal conflict was not uncommon, alliances between various tribes assisted in facilitating communication and trade between them.

This was the way it remained until the first European contacts were made.

The European discoveries of New Zealand or Aotearoa as it is known to Maori, the first in 1642 by Dutch sailor Abel Tasman and the second by Captain James Cook in 1769-70 helped stimulate interest in the country. Although not seen as having any great strategic or economic value, the international rivalry of the British and French helped seal New Zealand's fate.

This was especially the case after the emergence of the British penal colonies in Australia. The need for ship building materials and supplies (such as whale products) is what drew British traders and settlers to New Zealand from the early 1800's. They established trading relationships with local Maori which were, on the whole, relatively beneficial to both sides to begin with.

Around 1830, the nature of European settlement began to change. It began to take on a permanency that had earlier been seen in other colonial societies such as Australia and Canada as traders, whalers and sealers became more profitable. Christian missionaries, such as the Church of England's Samuel Marsden, began to have an impact on Maori whom became increasingly Christianised as a result of their activities.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The paternalistic desire of the British authorities both to protect Maori from the worst excesses of colonialism and facilitate the orderly settlement of their citizens in New Zealand drove Maori towards, in the words of the late New Zealand historian Michael King, "a permanent and constitutional relationship with Britain."

The British authorities did this in two ways. Firstly, through the Governor of New South Wales Richard Bourke, they appointed a British resident James Busby to protect the interests of the European settlers and those of Maori against exploitation. In 1835, Busby persuaded some chiefs in the Far North of the North Island to sign 'A Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand' and these chiefs were designated as the 'Confederation of United Tribes.' This was no radical American-style declaration driven by a yearning to be free of the imperial yoke but rather a device by Busby to regulate the growth of the maritime trade around New Zealand.

The Foreign Office in London felt that Busby had exceeded his legal authority by concluding, from a Eurocentric standpoint, that Maori were not organised as a nation-state given that the tribes (through their rangatira or chiefs) still exercised authority (rangatiratanga) over loosely-defined geographical areas. The urgency of the situation was illustrated as well by the emergence of capitalist entrepreneurs, such as the former convict Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Britain feared that his New Zealand Company had its eye on colonising the country in its own name. These matters propelled London into sending a naval officer, William Hobson, to New Zealand with the intention of negotiating the voluntary transfer of sovereignty from Maori in mid-1839.

Hobson arrived in New Zealand in late January 1840 and given that he had only minimal instructions, he was given the responsibility he drew up the text of a treaty with his secretary, James Freeman and also William Busby. The Maori draft of the treaty (known as Te Tiriti O Waitangi) was written by the missionary Henry Williams and his son Edward who were both fluent in Maori.

Both language versions of the treaty have been disputed and re-interpreted over the years. However, the three English language articles of the treaty promised the following. In the first article, Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty to the British Crown. In the second article, though, Maori were guaranteed by the Crown the right to retain exclusive title over their lands and other resources for as long as they wanted to. The only agencies that could purchase land from Maori were the Crown and/or its appointed agents. An understanding was also reached that any Maori land or property would have to be sold at a fair price. The third article promised that in return for the ceding of sovereignty, Maori would enjoy the same rights and privileges of British subjects.

The majority of Maori chiefs who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi thought they were only granting kawanatanga (governorship) to the British authorities in respect of European settlers only. They also understood that under their version of article two they would retain tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) in decisions regarding their lands and other resources and could only sell them for a fair price through the Crown. The third article, in the eyes of Maori, gave them a guarantee that the British Government would legally protect and uphold their rights.

500 chiefs of the various tribes throughout New Zealand signed this version of the treaty in good faith although some did not. For those who did not, it was probably prescient on their part as this good faith was about to be tested given that the early colonists were about to exploit and badly treat the Maori people. This meant that no sooner had the ink dried, the first violations began.

Oppression and resistance

These violations were driven by the insatiable appetite for land that the settlers had and in the end these provoked Maori into confrontation with the growing number of European settlers and their government. The first such confrontation took place at Wairau, near the present day South Island city of Nelson, in June 1843 when the New Zealand Company decided to push their land claims in that area much to the anger of local Maori who were led by the chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata.

The Wirau incident was to start more than three intense decades of Maori oppression and, in response, resistance. This occurred as the colonial administration usurped what remained of the land, resources and political authority of Maori in violation of the treaty. They did this through gradually taking away their lands and resources via two means. The first was through unfair land sales with, for example, most of the South Island being sold for less than its market value during the early 1840s. The second was via the forcible confiscation of land by the Crown. This method was deployed particularly as a means of punishing rebellious tribal confederations as the Tainui people of the Waikato found out during the Maori Wars of the 1860s.

There were other celebrated instances of resistance. One Maori chief Hone Heke cut down the flagpole flying the Union Jack over New Zealand's first capital Kororareka in 1844 in the hope that the mana (authority) over the land would be jointly held by both the government and Maori.

In the late nineteenth century, the resistance to government usurpation also took on more non-violent forms as trial confederations sought to set up parallel Maori political institutions to work alongside those of the European settlers. There were demands made in 1881 that a Maori Parliament be established to complement the colonial parliament. Maori saw this as a means to achieve the self-determination promised them in the treaty.

The hopes for a Maori Parliament, though, died in the embers of a western North Island town called Parihaka. In moves reminiscent of Britain's brutal suppression of the Indian mutinies of the 1850s, the Maori town was destroyed by colonial forces on the orders of the government after a pacifist-inspired revolt led by the chief Te Whiti. The British Government, still seen by some Maori as the ultimate guarantor of their treaty rights, did not intervene in this and other treaty violation cases as they saw the matter as an entirely New Zealand affair.

Effectively the treaty was eroded as by the early twentieth century, Maori land continued to be taken away through superficially legal means by successive New Zealand governments. As legal, constitutional and political power was effectively repatriated from Britain, this became easier to achieve. With every transfer of economic, social, political and cultural sovereignty to European New Zealanders, the position of Maori became more marginalised.

As this occurred, Maori became quietly more disempowered and embittered as European administrations attempted to relegate the treaty to historical status. For Maori the treaty continued to be a living document representing their hopes for equality and the redress of grievances.

It was these two divergent views of the treaty that were to form the backdrop for the current race relations debate in New Zealand.

The year 2004 was one of the most pivotal years for race relations in New Zealand in nearly a century. Once again the grievances of Maori were heard and the majority of European New Zealand society responded negatively. Why? The control of the foreshore and seabed was at stake.Test

In mid-2003, a Maori tribe, Ngati Apa, from the Marlborough Sounds region of the South Island took a case to New Zealand's Court of Appeal concerning the right to claim aqua-cultural farming rights in the region. Their essential argument was that non-Maori controlled fisheries companies were being granted concessionary rights by the local council to do so on the foreshore and seabed but Maori were not. [1]

Maori, throughout New Zealand, have traditionally maintained seafood as an important element in their diet. The sea has also played an important role in Maori spirituality. For these reasons, Ngati Apa felt obliged to take a case to the country's courts arguing, under article two of the Treaty of Waitangi (guaranteeing Maori exclusive title over their lands and resources) that they had traditional control over the foreshore and seabed and were, therefore, automatically entitled to their share of fish farming rights.

In July 2003, the country's Court of Appeal gave Ngati Apa leave to take their case to the Maori Land Court. Fearing a favourable decision that could possibly establish their and every other Maori tribe's rights to customary access and/or title to the seabed and foreshore and anticipating a backlash from the majority European population in such an event, the Labour Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark pre-empted the courts and legislated to vest the foreshore and seabed in Crown (government) ownership in late 2004.

Fear and confusion

The Labour Government was able to feed on the confusion about the legal status of the foreshore and seabed to make its move. Nearly all Maori tribes claimed in the wake of the case that they had never surrendered control over the foreshore and seabed under the Treaty of Waitangi. Theoretically, they argued that possession had always remained with them.

Similar arguments were deployed by the government to further their case. They claimed that the Crown had taken de-facto possession of the foreshore and seabed. Fear from European New Zealanders that Maori, if they had control over the foreshore and seabed, would block access to beaches and offshore fishing were largely dismissed by tribal authorities who said that if such rights were granted to them, access would not be blocked as they wanted (given their status as indigenous people) to ensure that ownership was not passed into foreign hands. Indeed some commentators pointed out that a double-standard was in operation given that a small but growing percentage of the shoreline had already been passed into the private control of either wealthy New Zealand or foreign owners who had, in some cases, restricted or blocked access themselves.

But few European New Zealanders chose to view the debate from this perspective.

Instead their underlying fears and resentments about Maori aspirations were stoked in the Orewa speech by conservative National Party leader Don Brash in late January 2004. [2] His essential argument that Maori had been the recipients of state-sponsored privilege and were arguing to have greater rights than the European population struck a chord throughout the non-Maori world.

However, as the first part of this article laid out, Maori had historically not been the recipients of privilege or greater rights, indeed, the opposite had occurred in that they had progressively lost rights since the nineteenth century.

The reclamation by Maori of those rights, which they claimed from the Treaty of Waitangi, has been a phenomenon of recent decades. This is the case as over the last 30 years, Maori political activism and a growing concomitant sense of European guilt (at least on the part of the governing elite) has helped bring about the beginnings of redress.

The path to consciousness

As was pointed out in part one, Maori had sought to keep alive the spirit of the Treaty through attempts to set up a Maori Parliament in the late nineteenth century but these moves failed due to the continual military suppression of revolts. This meant that Maori land and resources continued to be confiscated through legal means into the twentieth century. [3]

This was the result of the treaty being declared a legal 'nullity' by a colonial court in 1877. [4] This merely confirmed in Maori eyes that the European colonial regime wanted to well and truly bury the treaty.

Even so, in the wake of this ruling, Maori decided to utilise the institutions and structures of the European colonists to have their grievances addressed via peaceful means. An example of was the pan-tribal political movement called the Kotahitanga which urged the creation of dual, autonomous power structures to accommodate both Maori and Pakeha. It sought official recognition from the colonial authorities at the beginning of the twentieth century but failed in its attempt to do so. [5]

Maori consciousness, however, stayed alive and this was through a fusion of spiritualism and politics. This mixture came together in the form of the Ratana Church that was founded by the Maori prophet Ratana in the south-western North Island in the late nineteenth century. It spawned a political movement, Ratana, which contested the Maori seats in the European-dominated New Zealand Parliament on a platform of honouring the Treaty. During the early 1930s, Ratana forged an important political alliance with the centre-left Labour Party with the aim of supporting them in return for further progress on Maori issues.

When Labour came to power in 1935, it successfully implemented Keynesian Social Democratic policies that benefited many Maori as due to the continuing dispossession from their lands, Maori were prominent in both the unemployment and poverty statistics. The Labour Government also commemorated the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1940. [6]

However, there was continuing disappointment with Labour for not implementing policies to honour the treaty. But Labour had fostered a political alliance with Maori that was to last until fairly recently. Labour's appeal to Maori continued because of the party's identification with collectivism over individualism, something that appealed to the nation's indigenous people who believed in the notion of communal provision more than did Europeans.

The conservative National Party government's that predominated from the 1950's through until the early 1980's were indifferent to the needs of Maori given that the party passed legislation detrimental to Maori interests. [7] The support base for National lay largely within the European population while Labour, which remained out of government for much of this period, attracted support from the European working class and Maori. The one thing that did limit the potential political impact of Maori was the fact that they had only four parliamentary seats allocated to them although they could vote and stand for the general (European-dominated) seats as well. Given their predisposition towards Labour, their political clout with National was minimal.

This handicap and the frustration it engendered led to the re-emergence of protest movements influenced by the New Social Movements, particularly the black civil rights movement, in the US. One of the most prominent was Tamatoa that disrupted treaty commemorations in 1971. [8] This group and other Maori protest coalitions following them called for full recognition of the treaty and also of Maoritanga (Maori culture) by European New Zealanders.

Despite this the Maori alliance with Labour continued but was to become shakier as time went on.

In 1972, a new Labour Government was elected with Norman Kirk as Prime Minister. This administration passed two pieces of landmark legislation. The first was the Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1975 establishing a Waitangi Tribunal where Maori tribes could take grievances about confiscations and other violations of the treaty to but it was time limited in scope as it could only hear cases dating from 1975. The second was to make February 6, the treaty signing anniversary, a national holiday. [9]

Despite these first tentative steps, protest continued. In 1975, a hikoi or march travelled the length of the North Island led by a Maori elder woman, Whina Cooper, calling for Maori land rights to be acknowledged. Protests continued at annual Waitangi Day commemorations. Even when Labour went into opposition during the years of the Robert Muldoon National Government after 1975, they were not immune from Maori dissatisfaction. The first ruptures in the historic alliance between Labour and Maori were felt in 1980 when a former Labour Maori Affairs Minister, Matiu Rata, defected and set up the Mana Motuhake Party that called for greater self-determination to be granted to Maori. [10]

In 1984, the election of the David Lange-led Labour Government saw the introduction of New Right reforms into New Zealand. However, the administration sought to keep faith with its Maori electors. In 1985, the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act was passed permitting Maori tribes to bring grievances to the tribunal dating back to 1840, a move that caused deep unease amongst European New Zealanders and some relief to Maori. [11] Other policy initiatives included some support for Maori economic, social and educational development, legal recognition of the Maori language and an attempt to devolve some decision making powers back to tribal authorities.

This was at the same time that both Maori and European New Zealanders were being buffeted by the winds of economic change that saw unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty sweep the country. It was Maori, though, who sought to keep the New Right juggernaut in check through the New Zealand Maori Council taking a case to the Court of Appeal in 1987 over the exercise of Maori rights in government privatisations, which they won. [12]

The greatest development, though, was the beginning of redress for past grievances. With the passage of the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act, numerous Maori tribes brought grievances to the Waitangi Tribunal. These led to the first treaty settlements being resolved from the late 1980's onwards, a process that was fully welcomed by Maoridom but only cautiously accepted in the non-Maori world.

From the early 1990's the treaty settlement process was overseen by the National Party government led by Jim Bolger who continued the treaty-friendly consensus on race relations begun by the Lange Labour Government. Despite strong protests by Maori over the imposition of a monetary fiscal cap on treaty settlements by National, the process continued. In the mid-1990's, a referendum saw the replacement of the first-past-the-post electoral system by the German-style mixed member proportional system. The advent of proportional representation saw the number of Maori seats rise and the potential for greater indigenous representation in Parliament became evident. This led, in 1996, to Maori voters feeling freer to switch their allegiance from Labour to the right-wing New Zealand First Party, led by the part-Maori former National Party cabinet minister, Winston Peters whose party captured all of the Maori constituency seats. After that, New Zealand First went into coalition with the National Party.

The growing divide

This historic shift did not last long. In 1999, after a disastrous period in government for New Zealand First and National, Maori returned to voting Labour. With the election of the centre-left Labour-Alliance coalition under Helen Clark, there was a continuation of the treaty-friendly consensus on race relations at first. However, the mood of the non-Maori electorate had begun to change from one of cautiously accepting the treaty grievance process to one of growing concern. There were popular calls to put a time limit on how long grievances could be heard for.

Conversely, the Maori world echoed different sentiments. Many felt that the treaty settlement process was an important one and that while justice was slow to come for them too, it shouldn't be stopped. Maori continued to figure disproportionately in all the negative social indices in terms of enduring higher unemployment and imprisonment rates, etc. Despite the progress made on treaty issues in the last twenty years, the promise of full citizenship that the treaty held out for them had never been fulfilled.

In 2003, the court ruling on the foreshore and seabed was the straw that finally broke the camel's back.

The Clark Labour Government was now the eye in a potential race relations storm. Being a poll-driven 'Third Way' Labour administration, it sought to take a middle path by legislating for the foreshore and seabed to be formally 'taken' into government ownership while preserving some customary access rights for Maori. This legislation should have had cross-party appeal but seeing the rising discontent on Maori issues festering in the non-Maori world, centre-right parties, led by the National Party, essentially said the legislation did not go far enough in that it should not have granted any race-based 'privileges'.

Hence the Orewa speech was made by National leader Don Brash and Labour began losing support, particularly from its European blue-collar voting base. At the same time, it faced a challenge from its Maori flank as well, given that Labour in reacting to the post-Orewa poll resurgence of National, began reversing some of the political consensus on race relations by ordering a review of so-called 'race-based' government funding for Maori programmes and other policies. Moreover they pursued the foreshore and seabed legislation with vigour, leading to Maori claims that the passage of the law would mark another 'rapatu' or confiscation of their lands.

All this foment culminated in one of the most significant years for Maori protest in generations. Maori protestors made their anger plain at both the Prime Minister and National Party leader during Waitangi Day celebrations. This led onto one of the biggest mass demonstrations in New Zealand history when in May a 20,000 strong march against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill converged on Parliament in Wellington. In July, the new Maori Party was founded by former Clark government cabinet minister Tariana Turia. By the end of the year, the Foreshore and Seabed Act had been passed into law after torrid debate. The ground had now been set for the 2005 general election.

The state of play in 2005

In the early part of 2005, New Zealand politics is not dominated by the race debate in the same way that it was last year. At the time of writing, Labour with the passage of the foreshore law out of the way, is back in public favour and is increasingly favoured to win a third term. This is the result of National suffering a reversal in fortunes due to the dying down of the race debate and this year it is likely to focus on welfare reform and other social issues as key components of its campaign.

This is not to say that the debate is by no means over. Waitangi Day celebrations loom in early February and they could be marked by protest activity but whether or not it will be on the scale experienced last year is yet to be seen. Besides, there is the existence of the Maori Party who will be a thorn in Labour's side in the Maori constituencies. They could win a significant number of them and a few more seats could come their way via the party list system meaning they could claim between five and seven members in the 120 seat House of Representatives. Therefore, their influence could be crucial if the result is close between the centre-left and right blocs but this could be diminished if Labour chooses to coalesce with the centre-right United Future Party.

But one thing is for sure - race politics will continue to play a role in New Zealand's future in the same way that it has for other ex-British colonial societies.


1. Definitive coverage of this case and the Foreshore and Seabed Act, from both the Maori and Government perspectives, is available on two websites and

2. Dr. Don Brash, Leader, New Zealand National Party, 'Nationhood' speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, January 27, 2004.

3. Orange, Claudia; The Treaty of Waitangi, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, NZ, 1987: pg.227. By the end of World War One, 3 million acres of Maori land had been taken from Maori control.

4. Ibid, pg. 186-87. Chief Justice Prendergast said that the treaty was a nullity because it had not been made a part of New Zealand law.

5. Ibid, pp.226-27.

6. Ibid, pp.236-38.

7. Ibid, pg.242.

8. Ibid, pg.244.

9. Ibid, pg.246. The Kirk Labour Government named the holiday New Zealand Day and it was first celebrated as such on February 6, 1974. In 1976, the National Government of Robert Muldoon re-named the day Waitangi Day and it has been known as that since.

10. Ibid, pg. 248.

11. Ibid, pg.250.

12. Ibid, pg.254.