The Waitangi Tribunal

Jennifer Lee '99 (English 27, Spring '97)

Indeed, the new activism scored several victories for the Maori people with their tactics, not the least of which was the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975. The Tribunal was designed to hear Maori grievances, inquire into claims under the Treaty, and make recommendations to Parliament for resolving disputes. However, it was severely limited initially as it would only hear violations that were made after the year of its creation. Needless to say, there were very few complaints that were registered until 1985 when Maori leaders were successful in lobbying the Labour government to extend the time frame to 1840, the year that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The decisions that the Tribunal makes on these cases are not law, but they have, especially recently, had a tremendous effect on the law. One aggravated Pakeha columnist speaks out against the Tribunal in light of the Tribunal's imminent recommendation to Parliament to reward the Taranaki tribes a larger handout than the $170 million dollar settlement that the Tainui tribes received earlier "as compensation for land confiscated as a penalty for taking up arms against the Government 130 years ago" :

The tribunal has failed because its only real achievements have been to generate a vast grievance industry and at the same time raise vain hopes of future handouts, larger every year, to everyone who can lay claim to even one per cent of Maori ancestry... The claims are multiplying like bacteria, each new demand more preposterous than the last... And every time the handing over of hundreds of millions of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars is announced, a groan goes up through out the land from the exasperated throats of the majority.

From this kind of reaction by a member of the majority group, it is apparent that the Tribunal is making a difference - for the benefit of the Maori and the detriment of the Pakeha. It is true that the Maori have suffered almost a hundred and sixty years of biased treatment at the hands of the Pakeha government, but this fact alone, or even in conjunction with the fact that all the land was originally Maori land, does not merit this version of affirmative action. Rather, the justification for land reform can be found in the Treaty of Waitangi where the Maori are not only guaranteed "sovereignty" over the land, they are also guaranteed "chieftainship" of their taonga kaotu, all their treasured things. Before the Tribunal, however, the land situation was generally very different. When Maori groups had complaints to register, they were forced to present their cases to the courts who were often unsympathetic, denying that the Treaty had a place in domestic law. The Tribunal offered an alternative for the Maori to receive what they felt was their due right under the Treaty, and in doing so, found a place in New Zealand legal history.

The first important case that the Tribunal heard was in 1982 when the Te Ati Awa of Taranaki challenged the right of the Petro-Chemical Industries to discharge wastes into the coastal waters off the town of Waitara. Initially, the tribe claimed that the waste would pollute the shellfish collecting grounds that were sources of traditional tribal food and income, and they demanded a specific monetary compensation for their losses. The Tribunal turned around and found that the reefs and the shellfish were cultural properties, taonga kaotu to the Maori people, and a protected right under Article 2 of the Treaty. This was an interpretation that the courts found acceptable, and as a result, the idea of cultural properties was adopted as a precedent for future cases. A "partnership with mutual responsibilities" in a bicultural New Zealand was born. This sentiment was echoed in the landmark case of the NZ Maori Council v. Attorney General and Others case wherein the court revoked the long-standing view that had declared the Treaty a legal nullity.

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