The Treaty of Waitangi

Why you need to know about this and incorporate it in the workplace

It’s the founding document of our country, but what relevance does this have for your organisation?

Te tuaono o Huitanguru 1840 – February 6th, 1840. The date we formally recognise as the day the foundation document confirming the partnership between the indigenous people of Aotearoa – Māori, and the British Crown was signed.  This document formally recognises the European settlement of Aotearoa New Zealand and the two language versions of this text, conveyed to both parties what that meant for each of them respectively.   The problem with this is that the Treaty of Waitangi was an English document, an iteration of the version written in te reo Māori* – te Tiriti o Waitangi – by the English.  The Māori chiefs understood what they were signing, but the English as non-native-speakers wrote the reo Pākeha iteration as a literal translation based on their understanding of the words, which is not how the Rangatira – the chiefs who were the Māori signatories, understood what they were signing.

Ok, that’s a really quick and not terribly indepth overview.  It doesn’t begin to cover the issues that have arisen in the nearly two-hundred years since this document was signed.  That’s not the purpose of this post.  What we’re going to cover is why you need to understand the relevance of the treaty and it’s principles.

First up.  What does it cover?
There are three articles to te Tiriti o Waitangi, in a nutshell:

  • Article 1 is about Kāwanatanga. The right to govern was given to the Crown by Māori
  • Article 2 is about Tino rangatiratanga; Māori retaining their sovereignty over their valued posessions
  • Article 3 is about Tāngata Whenua (Māori) and Tāngata Tiriti (all those that came to be in NZ as partners to the signed treaty) having equal rights in Aotearoa.

Ngā mātāpono o te tiriti – The principles of the treaty

There is a lot of discussion about the principles of the treaty and a common misunderstanding is that these are clearly outlined within the treaty; they’re not. The principles are just that, a way to highlight the meaning of the intent behind the treaty and guide the working partners (that is all of us – individuals, businesses, organisations, government organisations) to understand the objectives of the treaty when it was created.

The principles were articulated by the Department of Justice in 1989 in response to a 1987 lands court case, with several other court cases following having identified, reiterated and developed the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi further. 

These were condensed into three guiding principles:

  • partnership – active strategies to work together, to engage and consult with Māori hapū and iwi, to consider all persepectives and have meaningful representation from Māori
  • protection – ensuring that decisions made are tika (right) and follow kawa (protocol). , ensuring implementation of uara Māori – Māori values. This is ensuring that the treasures of Māori are treated accordingly eg language is protected, whenua (land) is protected, fisheries are protected.
  • participation – similar to partnership, application of this principle can mean to encourage meaningful dialogue and relationships with iwi and hapū so they have input into decisions that could affect them.

As more cases are considered by the Waitangi Tribunal, these principles have been further refined and widened, with policy and legislation updated accordingly. WAI2575 (The 2019 Hauora Report) is possibly the most comprehensive of these through its incorporation of the principles of tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake (self-determination and autonomy), equity, and options.

So why do you need to know about this?

Cultural competency.

The ability to understand and interact effectively with people from other cultures sounds simple, but it takes effort and skill. A working knowledge of te Tiriti o Waitangi forms the basis of effective cultural competency.  One of the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi is the duty to act reasonably and in good faith that means understanding that Māori and other cultures are different and respect needs to be given to these differences.  International law states that where a treaty exists between two nations, then the indigenous version must take precedent. We have an obligation to uphold the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi – that means positive engagement with whānau/hapū/iwi. 

Consultation from the outset, not inviting them to the planning of the party after the caterer and the dj have been hired.

It’s good business to be anti-racist

You’d have to have been hiding under a rock to have missed the significant race discussions and protests demanding decolonisation over recent years – especially the ones of 2020.  Government has made a stand recently with the announcement they will introduce legislation to put in place transitional measures that uphold council decisions to establish Māori wards or constituencies.

It’s not about giving Māori special treatment.  It is about acknowledging the fact that te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed by Rangatira with the understanding that they would continue to have te tino rangatiratanga of hapū – historians widely agree that the treaty was presented in a manner calculated to secure Māori agreement. The transfer of power to the Crown was played down. 

Remember the principles.  Māori were guaranteed the rights to have a say about issues that affect them.  Colonisation did anything but effect these rights.  By understanding te Tiriti o Waitangi and committing to upholding the principles of the Treaty, you are honouring the agreement and contributing to a truly bicultural nation.

Community led development is the future

People actively shaping their communities is not just an ideal.  In Ōtautahi Christchurch, after the earthquakes of 2010/2011, we saw an increase in community participation where people took initiative to be involved in what the rebuild looked like.  For the business and NFP communities, this saw an increase in the establishment of impact enterprises and working relationships being developed between businesses and charities to do “more good” without bureaucratic procrastination. 

Where government was concerned, and local government in particular, consultation with mana whenua was a standard practice on any decision making and partnerships between goverment departments and local iwi were crucial in making progress towards any of the key projects within the rebuild planning.

While not all community led development that occurs has strong commitment towards upholding the principles of the Treaty, you will find that Māori approaches don’t just align with community led development: the values behind ‘kaupapa Māori’ and ‘tino rangatiratanga’ are community development. That is, they are intentional processes of working towards self-determined goals and aspirations for the good of the whānau which is in turn good for the iwi.

If your organisation is a not-for-profit one seeking funding, then the majority of funders will seek explanation about how your organisation strives to uphold the principles of the Treaty.  They want to know what benefit your project will bring to the wider community and how this will make the most impact.  Collaboration is an increasingly desirable aspect of any successful project.

Ergo, it makes sense that for successful community led development, there needs to be a commitment to honouring te Tiriti o Waitangi, underpinned by an understanding of what this means

In summary

Whether you’re a not-for-profit seeking funding, a person that wants to do things better, or a business that works with Māori, a working knowledge of, and commitment to honouring te Tiriti o Waitangi are not just things you should talk about doing, they’re an integrated aspect of our bicultural identity and a crucial piece of the puzzle in reducing negative social outcomes and inequities.

It’s part of being a bloody good human being.


*Edited January 2024:  An earlier version of this blog post stated that te Tiriti o Waitangi was translated from English into reo Māori which I’ve since learned was incorrect.

The reo Pākeha version – the Treaty of Waitangi – was produced after te Tiriti o Waitangi was written and signed by the original Rangatira to put their name to te Tiriti and He Whakaputunga.

Why is this important?  Because for too long we’ve been told that The Treaty of Waitangi is what we need to understand.  International treaty law tells us that Te Tiriti takes precedent and so it is important that we do split hairs and correct the misinformation wherever we can.  ESPECIALLY in light of populist politics that seek to undermine progress made over the last five decades or so.