ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill upholds exactly zero of the treaty principles

January 19, 2024

TL;DR: The ACT party’s Treaty Principles bill serves to nullify the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s most important founding document, and replace it with a whole bunch of flowery nothing. Fuck those guys.

Today the New Zealand Government confirmed the legitimacy1 of a leak of draft text of ACT’s Treaty Principles bill. This post is an attempt to provide enough context to my friends and family outside New Zealand to illuminate why the Treaty Principles bill is such an insidious (and insidiously named) idea. If you’re kiwi or familiar with New Zealand history, this post may not teach you anything new.

The ACT party (a right-wing party in coalition with the newly-elected center-right National party) has proposed a new Treaty Principles bill which, if passed, would serve to supersede Te Tiriti o Waitangi (English: The Treaty of Waitangi). The position of ACT, in short, is this (my wording): “New Zealand should stop wasting time determining if the Crown has met and is meeting its treaty obligations – the treaty principles (as ACT defines them) should be codified into law, with references to the original treaty removed from law.”

Te Tiriti o Waitangi is one of the documents most central to New Zealand’s national identity – and it may be appropriate to call it the founding document of New Zealand (in relation to New Zealand the modern entity). The document is an agreement between the British Crown and a large group of representatives of Māori (the demonym of the indigenous people of New Zealand). It is the document by which New Zealand became a British colony; European colonial presence in New Zealand before the signing of this document, while majority British, was plural and non-centralized. The treaty itself is a short document, but it’s important to note that it was prepared in two versions: English and te reo Māori (the Māori language).

The treaty was drafted over the course of just a few days, and the translation from English to te reo Māori occurred overnight2. Two terminology choices made during translation still serve as the foundation for debates over Crown obligations to Māori today: the uses of the terms kawanatanga and te tino rangatiratanga. Specifically, te tino rangatiratanga over Māori lands, villages, and treasures was granted to the united Māori tribes. Te tino rangatiratanga is commonly translated3 as “unqualified exercise of chieftainship.” What you need to know in the context of this post is that in the original Tiriti o Waitangi, te tino rangatiratanga was something promised to the Māori people by the Crown. (This term doesn’t line up exactly with the English text, and that’s a whole different can of worms which I won’t cover here.)

One of the principles in ACT’s bill (seen in the leaked memo) is as follows: ‘“ki nga tangata katoa o Nu Tirani te tino rangatiratanga o o ratou wenua o ratou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa” – the New Zealand Government will honour all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and all their property.’ Textually, it seems like they’re upholding a genuine principle of the treaty. The te reo Māori text is even extracted verbatim from Te Tiriti!

But these fuckers are doing something very sneaky syntactically. While they’re borrowing treaty wording to describe their proposed bill, the context of the Treaty Principles Act is totally different from the treaty: it would not be between the Crown and the Māori people, but rather between the New Zealand Government and New Zealanders. Te tino rangatiratanga is now promised to “New Zealanders.” This one contextual change strips out any obligation between Crown and Māori, and replaces it with a sanitized obligation that boils down to “The New Zealand Government states that New Zealanders can own stuff.” This is, of course, not a principle of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It barely means anything at all.

ACT’s decision to call this bill the Treaty Principles bill is intentionally misleading. They want to have the plausible deniability of upholding the essence of the treaty while at the same time negating all its substance.

I hope this has helped provide a bit of insight to those of you (namely my American friends) not so familiar with New Zealand’s political context. I’m not an expert in the slightest, but I also believe that ACT’s behavior here is so straightforwardly gross that you don’t need an ultra-nuanced understanding of New Zealand politics to understand it.

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