Te Arawhiti a game-changer?

When Kelvin Davis was announced as the Minister of Crown–Māori Relations in the wake of the 2017 general election, nobody was quite clear what that new portfolio was going to look like. Now Cabinet has approved the final scope of the portfolio and agreed to establish a new agency, the Office for Māori Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti.

Critics have questioned whether a new agency is necessary. That criticism seems to be based on a limited and narrow view of what the Māori–Crown relationship ought to look like and how it should develop. The details that have been released about the new agency hint at the possibilities of seeing this relationship explored on a bigger canvas.

Of course, the establishment of a new agency cannot be seen as a game-changer in and of itself. But the basic framework that has been outlined for Te Arawhiti does appear to signal a definite shift in the way government intends to approach and to develop the Māori–Crown relationship.

Significantly, the negotiation and settlement of historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi now seem to be more clearly viewed as part of an ongoing Treaty partnership. Davis has announced that the Office of Treaty Settlements, the Settlement Commitments Unit and the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Team (which manages applications for customary rights in relation to the coastal marine area) will be consolidated with the current Crown–Māori Relations Unit. This is important because establishing and maintaining good relationships today should not depend on demonstrating a poor relationship in the past. Addressing the wrongs of the past is crucial, but to view historical Treaty breaches as the reason for establishing innovative, collaborative partnerships is extremely limiting.

It has always been something of a façade to suggest Treaty settlements are simply about providing redress for historical breach.

There are some key aspects of settlements that bear a direct link to historical breaches of Treaty principles. For example, the provision of financial and commercial redress as reparation and the return of lands alienated in breach of the Crown’s Treaty obligations. These are important parts of the settlement package that help to provide a platform for a renewed relationship with the Crown, as do Crown acknowledgements of and apologies for Treaty breaches.

But Treaty settlements also provide for a range of mechanisms that establish partnerships with government agencies, setting out protocols for how those agencies will work with iwi. By and large, these relationships simply implement the kind of good faith interaction that is inherent in the Treaty partnership, independent of any past breach. That is, it should be business as usual for government agencies to be communicating with iwi, collaboratively agreeing plans and priorities, and co-designing policy and service delivery.

Agencies’ agreement to enter into that kind of engagement should not need to be negotiated on a case by case basis. It should be part of being a responsible Treaty partner. Framing these matters in the context of historical claims and settlements not only results in uneven outcomes for iwi across the country but positions these matters as transactional commitments to be adhered to like the terms of a contract, as opposed to steps that may be taken to support the strategic development of a flourishing Treaty partnership. The new organisational structure appears to recognise this.

Among the matters on which Te Arawhiti is to provide strategic leadership is “the constitutional and institutional arrangements supporting partnerships between the Crown and Māori”. This is imperative. If the Government is genuinely committed to perfecting the Treaty partnership, this must include some consideration of constitutional reform. If the Treaty of Waitangi is the foundation of the Māori–Crown relationship, our constitutional arrangements need to also be founded on the Treaty, in order to make that partnership a reality in the exercise of public power.

Again, the framework announced for Te Arawhiti points to an important shift in focus. This new agency is intended to be proactive and strategic about developing the Māori–Crown relationship in a post-settlement era. The Treaty relationship has always been about much more than historical breach and redress. At its heart, it is a constitutional relationship, and, since 1840, Māori have consistently sought ways to give effect to the constitutional relationship envisaged by the Treaty.

I wouldn’t want to be naïve about the ability of a new government agency to transform the Māori–Crown relationship overnight, but perhaps, with the establishment of Te Arawhiti, we can perceive that the Crown is beginning to see both the benefit and necessity of understanding the Treaty in these constitutional terms.

Or is that a bridge too far for the Crown? I hope not, because that shift in thinking really could be a game-changer.

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