Meng Foon on Waitangi Day: A day for difficult conversations

5:34 am on 6 February 2023
Politicians, including Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and opposition leader Christopher Luxon, being welcomed onto Te Whare Runanga on the Treaty grounds at Waitangi.

Politicians being welcomed onto Te Whare Runanga on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi on Sunday. Photo: RNZ / Ella Stewart

By Meng Foon, New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner

Opinion - Waitangi Day is many things to many people, but Te Kāhui Tika Tangata the Human Rights Commission sees it as an opportunity. An opportunity to continue to hold difficult but necessary conversations around issues of national importance.

Some of these issues were canvassed in two comprehensive reports we released last week.

Ki te Whaiao, ki te ao Mārama is our engagement report to inform the government's national action plan against racism. That report captures the thoughts of our communities around addressing racism and building a brighter future for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Maranga Mai! is a complementary report examining the impacts of colonisation, white supremacy and racism on Tangata Whenua.

Within these reports there is recognition that honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi means it is necessary to rebalance power structures so Māori have the ability to participate and to determine their own future. Exercising their promised tino rangatiratanga would deliver on promises within Te Tiriti and help produce a society where all can thrive.

In Aotearoa, Te Tiriti underpins the shared values of Aotearoa. In areas where Māori are failing, there should be equity of resources and decision making. Current forms of governance seem to be failing our most vulnerable communities

In this context, the subject of what has been perhaps clumsily called "co-governance" can't be avoided, and neither should it. This concept is based on partnership and is simply about participation and accessibility.

Such partnership is a way to uplift Māori, empower tangata whenua at the decision-making table and give some recognition to the tino rangatiratanga authority that exists alongside kāwanatanga governance. It is about sharing power, not losing it, something that is beneficial for everyone in Aotearoa, not just Māori. It is an aspiration of both our founding Te Tiriti o Waitangi and a fundamental element of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The declaration, adopted by the United Nations in 2007, sets out globally agreed standards for indigenous peoples' rights and was committed to by New Zealand governments from both sides of the political spectrum.

This important document covers a range of rights, affirming that indigenous peoples are entitled to enjoy them fully. It emphasises that indigenous peoples are entitled to exercise the fundamental right to self-determination and to participate in decision-making that impacts them.

These rights have been denied and undermined by colonisation and the ongoing legacy of racism and inequity. We should not fear the strengthening of indigenous peoples rights.

There have been moves across all sectors to boost diversity as we have realised, to reach and serve communities, you need to represent and understand them. Participation and representation are a must to address inequity and inequality that is rooted in our past. For tangata whenua, genuine partnership with the crown in the provision of public services is a tangible solution to many issues.

Such a power-sharing approach is not new to Aotearoa and not exclusive to one side of the political spectrum.

A National Party-led government established Whānau Ora, led by an approach prioritising iwi-government working relationships. Many kura with te reo Māori immersion units, also have a form of governance which prioritises partnership. There are other localised examples, recently Waitomo Papakāinga in Te Tai Tokerau was cited as a successful programme which has helped many tamariki Māori remain in safe homes with whānau and hapū rather than entering state care.

There have been numerous Te Tiriti o Waitangi settlements containing covenants of partnership to manage the well-being of lakes, rivers and mountains, so everyone benefits. Such arrangements around the Waikato, Waipā and Whanganui rivers are great examples. These partnerships, where tangata whenua and the crown work in a Te Tiriti framework, give us hope that history can be turned around.

International research illustrates that empowering self-determination for indigenous peoples has wide-ranging and positive impacts in many areas including housing, education and health. There have been examples of co-governance, self -governance and self-determination peacefully and effectively working among indigenous peoples around North America and the Nordic region. The false equivalence to apartheid fails to recognise that rights are not taken from any group, instead rights are realised and empowered for people that have been left behind by society.

We all have the opportunity to stop the ongoing negative effects of colonisation and racism and help move the country forward. This is highlighted in last week's reports.

It is clear that the racism tangata whenua and other ethnic and religious communities encounter in Aotearoa is a clear breach of human and indigenous rights. Both reports call for government to introduce constitutional reform and an approach in line with Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Māori and non-Māori alike cited a brighter future for all if Te Tiriti and He Whakaputanga o Te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni were honoured as the founding documents of Aotearoa.

We have an opportunity New Zealand, let's grasp it and not shy away from building an inclusive Aotearoa that respects the rights of all people.

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