A flare-up between the New Zealand Treaty Settlements Minister, Chris Finlayson, and the Waitangi Tribunal chairman, Eddie Taihukurei Durie, over the behavior of the New Zealand Mãori Council, has highlighted the special status accorded to Mãoris which is denied—on a racial basis—to Europeans in that country.

The latest spat came after Finlayson, who is entrusted with negotiating the “settlement” of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, gave an interview in which he said his “patience had snapped with the Crown Forestry Rental Trust and its squabbling Mãori trustees.”

The Treaty of Waitangi, regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, was signed between five hundred tribal chiefs and the British government, in terms of which Britain formally took sovereignty over the islands, appointed a governor, and recognized the landownership rights of the Mãori, who placed themselves under the protection of the British government as British subjects.

The treaty has however been mired in conflict from the very beginning, mainly because the Mãori tribes were never united—and thus were as liable to dispute any settlement with each other as quickly as they were with the British—and also because writing had been completely unknown to the natives. (The written Mãori language used today was invented by Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University, Britain, in 1820, and was only transmitted to the natives after the British organized schools for the Mãoris after they took control of the islands following the signing of the treaty.)

The Office of Treaty Settlements (OTS) is supposed to continue negotiations over “claims” resulting from the treaty, and to build “positive relationships between the Crown and Mãori.”

The latest dispute arose over more than one million New Zealand dollars was paid out in lawyers’ fees for “Treaty settlement research.” Finlayson said the cost was due to Taihukurei Durie’s behavior, which he called “disappointing.”

Finlayson said that infighting on the Mãori-controlled body—which was entrusted with looking after $300 million in forestry assets—had disrupted the Treaty settlement process. He singled out Taihukurei Durie’s role in making allegations against Crown-appointed chairwoman Angela Foulkes.

“It’s particularly disappointing when someone has held high judicial office and is making those sorts of allegations,” said Mr Finlayson.

The infighting has found the trust largely paralyzed for almost two years after Taihukurei Durie was appointed as a trustee and began questioning the processes used to award millions of dollars in research money. Court papers show Sir Eddie’s questions about process led to claims of conflicts of interest among trustees, accusations of improper behavior and ultimately a string of court cases which have spent 18 months in the High Court and are now headed for the Court of Appeal.

The spat has brought the Mãori Council and the special privileges granted to Mãoris into focus once again. The Mãori Council is a racially-based Mãori-only organization set up in terms of the 1962 Mãori Community Development Act to “advocate for Mãori at a national level.”

According to an official NZ government leaflet, the NZ Mãori Council’s role is “to remain vigilant to ensure that Mãori interests are protected.” Furthermore, the pamphlet continues, the “NZ Mãori Council has a proud 50 year record advocating for Mãori interests.”

Under the Mãori Affairs Amendment Act 1974, Mãoris are defined as “a person of the Mãori race of New Zealand; and includes any descendant of such a Mãori.”