Did the Treaty of Waitangi bring justice?

The Treaty of Waitangi did nothing to stop the onslaught of colonisation, argues Jayden Rivers, but renewed struggles in recent decades have brought change

The campaign around an Indigenous Voice to Parliament has revived public debate about a Treaty between Indigenous people and the Australian government.

Some have called for a Treaty instead of the Voice, which is simply a powerless advisory body. Many Voice supporters are hoping that the body would lead Treaty negotiations with the Commonwealth.

On 28 April 1840 in Aotearoa (New Zealand), my ancestor Rawiri Awarau was one of 540 northland Maori chiefs to sign Te Tiriti O Waitangi with the British Crown. Some Iwi (Maori tribes) did not engage with the Treaty.

Many believe a Treaty in Australia would deliver justice for Indigenous people. But the history in New Zealand shows that the Treaty has delivered very little. Only class struggle and mass movements have seen Maori win demands.


Initial contact between Maori and Europeans was based on trade. Maori increasingly practiced intensive agriculture and incorporated new crops and livestock brought by Europeans, including potatoes and pigs. Some were able to benefit from supplying food to the settlers.

But with more permanent settlements came disease, alcohol, and a market in land.

As privately-funded efforts to colonise New Zealand increased, the British state sought to regularise the process of settlement and to close New Zealand against French claims.

This meant the establishment of a colonial government, the formal regulation of the land market, and a deceptive attempt to have Maori cede sovereignty through a Treaty.

Captain William Hobson was sent as Lieutenant-Governor and produced the Treaty of Waitangi. Its two versions, one in Maori and one in English, contained irreconcilable differences.

Article 1 of the English version said the Chiefs granted the crown “all rights and powers of sovereignty”, but in the Maori version they only ceded “kawanatanga”: the right for Britain to station a governor in New Zealand, not full sovereignty.

The English version gave the Crown the right to control land purchases from Maori and to subject Maori to British law.

Where there were guarantees given to Maori the colonial authorities were happy to disregard them to pursue their own interests.

The Treaty gave legal cover to the ongoing process of dispossession through the sale of land. But Maori did not share the same concepts of land ownership as British settlers.

Many Crown purchases were conducted covertly by appealing to individuals, despite land being communally owned. Maori often agreed to allow settlers the use of their land without knowing that the settlers viewed this as a permanent sale.

Disputes over land purchases and anger at increasing dispossession saw Maori in the North Island organise a series of Kotahitanga (solidarity) movements. These movements aimed to unite Maori, establish an alternative government, and stop further loss of land.

This soon collapsed into the Land Wars of the 1860s—known among Maori as “the Pakeha’s (European’s) anger”. The Treaty had facilitated the theft of Maori land and the growth of British settlements, only delaying outright war.

Some colonists had initially hoped that dispossession would meet little resistance. But people like colonial official and judge C.W. Richmond realised that the “inevitable hour of conflict must come, it was one of the necessities of colonization.”

The Suppression of Rebellion Act 1863 allowed the confiscation of land of all those held to be “engaged in rebellion”. The colonial government confiscated over 1.3 million hectares of land using the Act, more than 10 per cent of the North Island. Even those who refused to join the rebellion had their lands seized.

Due to the proliferation of muskets through trade, Maori proved capable of defeating the imperial forces on a number of occasions. But the British eventually pushed the fighters into the interior of the North Island.

The two sides reached a stalemate with 6.4 million hectares still in Maori hands. The government then devised a new method of acquiring land.

The Native Land Act 1865, with its Native Land Court, aimed at individualising titles to make land available for purchase without having to deal with entire tribes. In the process the Treaty was completely disregarded, with Chief Justice Prendergast ruling in 1877 that it was a “simple nullity”.

Land Court Judge Lewis said in 1891 “The whole object was to enable alienation for settlement” and Former Attorney-General Henry Sewell stated that the aim was to “destroy if possible, the principle of communism which ran through the whole of their [Maori] institutions”.

By the 1890s only 17 per cent of the land remained in Maori hands.


A turn towards assimilation saw Maori given four seats in parliament out of 70, and the attempted destruction of Maori identity through the Native Schools where kids were beaten for speaking te reo Maori.

This was a far cry from the guarantee in the Treaty of Maori rights to their lands and culture. Maori increasingly had to work for low wages on privately owned Pakeha land.

During the Second World War the state encouraged Maori migration to towns and cities to work in the growing industrial economy.

This created new conditions for Kotahitanga in the form of Maori women’s associations and cultural clubs. Young Maori were drawn into trade unions. The economic fight for pay and conditions combined with consciousness of political oppression.

In 1967 the Department of Maori Affairs tried to break up what was left of Maori communal ownership, sparking fears of a further land grab.

The existence of the Treaty did nothing to stop this. Later, groups like Nga Tamatoa even raised the slogan “The Treaty is a Fraud”.

The Act ignited a grassroots movement of resistance that would eventually force change.

East Coast elders approached two Maori drivers who passed on a call to Tama Poata, organiser with the Wellington Drivers Union. Poata took the issue to a meeting of Maori drivers and they formed the Maori Organisation on Human Rights (MOOHR).

Then a stopwork meeting of over 1000 drivers gathered, voting to support Maori submissions against the land-grabbing law.

The position of large numbers of Maori within the working class gave them a renewed ability to organise with the power to strike and shut down production. As Tama Poata explained “You only had to travel the length of the North and South Islands to see the number of Maori on the roads and operating heavy machinery.”

In September 1972 a 30,000 signature petition calling for the recognition and revitalisation of Maori language was delivered to parliament.

This led to the introduction of optional Maori language classes in primary and secondary schools, and the creation of a one-year course to train fluent Maori speakers as teachers.

By 1974 over 24 per cent of working days lost due to strike action were in political strikes—primarily for Maori rights and women’s liberation.

The struggle boiled over with the 1975 land rights march across the North Island. Over 5000 people demanded “Not one more acre of land” and delivered a petition signed by over 60,000. There were increasing demands for the government to honour the Treaty. But it was the movement itself that scared the New Zealand elite into making concessions.


In response, the New Zealand government introduced the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 which brought in the Waitangi Tribunal. Ten years later it was given the power to hear claims of Treaty breaches dating back to 1840.

The Tribunal’s recommendations are non-binding on the government.

Yet the Tribunal has driven governments into granting a total of $2.24 billion in compensation as of 2018 as well as returning small areas of land. This is nothing compared to the true value of the land stolen.

The Tribunal has compensated some Maori while keeping it just out of reach for the majority—especially those Maori severed from their tribes through assimilation.

But there is a wider lesson here about the relationship between struggle and progress.

The Treaty is not simply “honoured” in the Tribunal. Nor is the Tribunal imbued with magical veto powers which bend the government to its will.

The government listens to Tribunal recommendations only because a mass movement forced concessions from New Zealand’s ruling class. But when the Maori claimants come up against private interests, the need for grassroots mobilisation returns.

The 2016-2020 land occupation at Ihumatao in south Auckland is one example.

In 1863 the government stole the land as punishment for local support of the Kotahitanga movements, in breach of the Treaty. For more than a century it was mainly used as private farmland.

In 2016, Fletcher Building Company bought the land for housing developments. Thereafter, local Maori formed the direct action group SOUL to demand that the land be returned.

SOUL exhausted all legal avenues for redress—Maori land court, Tribunal, even the United Nations. So they called on thousands of supporters who flooded in to aid land protectors.

The government worried that the situation would undermine the “legitimate avenues” for redress, encouraging further land claims and occupations all over Aotearoa. The government bought the land from Fletcher and set up a committee to determine its future.

But the struggle at Ihumatao has reminded people, especially young urban Maori, that protest works.

The compensation received through the Waitangi Tribunal has been nowhere near enough to address the impact of colonisation. Maori in general remain at the bottom of society.

Maori control only 6 per cent of the land. In 2020, Maori made up 52 per cent of the prison population but only 16 per cent of the total population.

Maori earn up to 23 per cent less than Pakeha and make up 60 per cent of homeless people. In 2019-2020, about 60 per cent of the children entering state care were Maori.

This can only be addressed through radical reform to the prison, education, industrial, and child protection systems, and funding for social services under community control.

But these recommendations would strike too close to the heart of a system which protects profits at the expense of human need. They will never be adequately implemented through legal appeals to the terms of the Treaty through a Tribunal.

People who see the Treaty and Tribunal as the source of progress in Aotearoa have it backwards. The tribunal only expresses the balance of political forces on the ground. The stronger the movement, the better the wins.

Only by uniting the power of striking workers from all backgrounds with the fight against all forms of oppression can Maori win justice.


Solidarity meetings

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