Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

An End to Treaty Historical Claims


With Waitangi Day fast approaching, press stories are starting to appear criticising the government's Treaty settlement policy. Journalists peddling the assertions of Maori radicals rarely look for counter arguments. Yet the government's critics are mostly people who make their livings from continuing the grievance process: lawyers in search of briefs, or radicals with axes to grind. It's time for a realistic assessment of the grievance process. If Labour wasn't so scared of losing Maori votes they would be vigorously defending their policies which intend to close off new historical claims in 2008, and settle all outstanding historical claims by 2020. Lord knows, those dates are generous enough: the Fourth Labour government in 1985 when it gave the Waitangi Tribunal the power to examine historical claims back to 1840 envisaged all claims being settled by 2000. The new dates indicate the failure of successive governments, National and Labour, to come to grips with the administrative challenge. The Waitangi settlement process was intended to heal wounds over the confiscation of land in the 19th century, and wrongs done to Maori. Instead, lax administration has let a permanent grievance industry develop at huge expense to the taxpayer, and no benefit to ordinary Maori, most of whom are yet to see any dividends from settlements.

In 1943 a careful assessment of historical grievances was produced for Prime Minister Peter Fraser. It concluded that there were eleven areas of substantial Maori grievance. Four "full and final" settlements were made over the next four years. The Fourth Labour Government knew there were other serious grievances, but concluded that the number was not large. Twenty years later, with no cut off date for the filing of claims yet in force, they number 1300. Many are speculative in nature. In several cases that I came across as a Tribunal member, the Tribunal was ready to deliberate when more claims suddenly appeared. In most cases they were from people who had not been members of the main hapu or iwi, but had heard family stories about some ancestral connection with the land under discussion. The new claimants wanted to stop proceedings while the State paid for research to establish their rights. As soon as the cheque book opened there was a lawyer ready to plead the case, and someone ready to research the claim. "Research" is a kind word; often the papers presented were of low quality, while meantime the settlement process with the principal parties was delayed, sometimes for several years. All the incentives pointed in the direction of continuing grievances, not settling them. Tribunal members asked to see ministers to point out faults in the system; nothing happened. The process dragged on. More lawyers became involved. Costs blew out, while the original claimants sat by gnashing their teeth.

Credulous journalists have lent themselves to special pleaders. One small family endeavoured to upstage part of the Kaipara hearings that I sat on. We investigated and decided the group had nothing more than a minor family disagreement with the main claimants. That didn't deter them. Some months later, the leading complainer now calling his group an "iwi", was all over the front page of the Herald asserting he had equal rights with Ngati Whatua, the tribe that has always been recognised as the tangata whenua in the Auckland isthmus. No counter argument was reported.

Funding claims of this kind with taxpayers' money is bad. First it can delay settlement for those with legitimate grievances. Secondly, no matter the rules, there is the potential for full and final agreements, once made, to be unravelled after years of painstaking work has gone into a settlement. Lawyers, after all, can be hired to argue anything for a price. They get their state-paid money whether a claim has merit or not. So-called researchers are the same. Taxpayers get ripped off. Maori suffer because justice delayed is justice denied.

The intention behind the 1985 process was to heal wounds, not to rub salt into them. The latter has been happening for too long. All political parties should join forces and acknowledge that virtually all the historical claims are now in, and the grievance industry should wind down. Existing claims must be settled as quickly as possible. Stopping fresh historical claims means that full and final settlements already made have a chance of working longer term. The Waitangi process was never intended as a permanent career for lawyers and under-employed "researchers". It was to assist ordinary Maori whose interests, sadly, are too often over-looked.