Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Failure of the Waitangi Industry

There are few futuristic ideas that have lost their sheen as quickly as the notion that settlements of Maori grievances would improve New Zealand's race relations. Our ancestors were sceptical. There were inquiries into grievances in 1921 and 1927, and Prime Minister Peter Fraser told Maori in the 1940s that he would settle the eleven sets of identifiable grievance that Maori had against the Crown. Several "full and final settlements" were made between 1943 and 1947. But most of the money paid to Maori trust boards was wasted.

Instead of learning from this experience, liberally-inclined politicians gradually convinced themselves that the complaints of those who had missed out on the 1940s settlements ought to be thoroughly investigated. Norman Kirk's Minister of Maori Affairs, Matiu Rata, was opposed; the Waitangi Tribunal erected in 1975 was to look at the Treaty of Waitangi and to ensure that its "principles" were applied to future public policy. No provision was made for delving into past history. Young, vocal Maori radicals protested. Eventually they convinced a later Labour deputy leader, Geoffrey Palmer, and a Maori Affairs spokesperson, Koro Wetere, to promise to introduce a mechanism for examining historical grievances. These had expanded in number since the first settlements. The Lange Labour government in which I was a minister was sceptical about whether the exercise would do anything useful for Maori, but in 1985 we allowed the Waitangi Tribunal to be expanded. As in 1975, no effort was made to determine what the so-called "principles" of the Treaty were that should guide the investigation process. In 1987 this omission enabled the Court of Appeal to produce a highly coloured version of what the Treaty meant, and before long several Maori radicals sought to drive a horse and cart through government policy. They succeeded, because neither Labour nor National has been prepared to define in legislation what the Treaty meant.

By the early 1990s the Waitangi Tribunal employed many people, and its appointed members gradually became advocates for Maori rather than independent assessors on the claims put before them. Money was given to Maori claimants to mount their cases. It came either from the Crown Forest Rental Trust (CFRT) or from Legal Aid funded by the taxpayer. Lawyers started helping themselves to the cash. By the time I joined the Tribunal in 1994 hearings were awash with lawyers, most on Legal Aid, with the claims before us being funded by the CFRT or the Tribunal's taxpayer funded resources. Virtually none of the costly process was paid for upfront by the claimants. They therefore had no incentive to be careful with taxpayers' money, or even with the Maori money that many were eventually to receive from the CFRT. Rorting the Tribunal process has become the name of the game. A whole industry numbering somewhere around 1,000 people gathered around new grievances that keep being dreamt up. Quite small family groups now call themselves tribes; personal disagreements with relatives get blown into major claims. And the taxpayer keeps paying up. A Maori minister in the present Labour government has talked about "the next generation of grievances" despite the fact that he and his colleagues have voted in Parliament for "full and final" settlements. The starry eyed optimism of 1985 has become a farce because of a lack of political willpower.

Not surprisingly, the industry doesn't want the Tribunal process ever to end. After 23 years, no decision has yet been made to close off new historical claims. The major parties dither. Labour wants the party vote of Maori; National isn't sure they mightn't need the Maori Party's support after the coming election. Both major political parties know that what is happening is wrong, and that ordinary Maori in whose name the claims are made, aren't getting a cracker out of the money being spent on lawyers, researchers and Tribunal staff. The spinelessness that we have come to expect of politicians in an MMP environment assists the greedy, when it was the needy we set out to help in 1985.

The Waitangi Tribunal experiment, unfortunately, has been so badly handled that few "full and final" settlements have been made, and only Ngai Tahu. and of late, Tainui, seem to have handled their settlements efficiently. Despite receiving their report 15 years ago, Muriwhenua in the north faces a logjam caused mostly by infighting amongst groups of potential beneficiaries. The Waitangi process has seen few Maori leaders of stature emerge, and the problems bedeviling Maori society continue to expand exponentially. When politicians settled on land grievances as the cause of Maori problems they made a mistake. It would have made better sense to examine welfare and the huge damage it has done to Maori society. The Waitangi Tribunal should be scaled down. The industry is of no use to 99% of the people it's meant to serve.