Let's put down our chisels and let Te Tiriti O Waitangi evolve

6:37 am on 7 February 2024
The hikoi arriving at Waitangi.

The hīkoi arriving at Waitangi. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Analysis - History is a living thing. The past not only tells us of where we've come from, it walks with us today and pushes us down certain paths to the future. It is an active, persistent, demanding presence; a stone in our shoe, a beam of light shining over our shoulders.

Yet as we confront another Waitangi Day full of debate, there are many eager to get out their chisels and carve our history into stone.

We seem to have fallen into a place of either/or when it comes to te Tiriti o Waitangi. Either it is a promise of partnership or a declaration of duties. Either we are 'tiriti-centric' or we are dishonouring the treaty. Either we respect cultural rights or universal human rights. Either it is article two or article three. Either it is everything or it is nothing.

My question this Waitangi Day is whether there is still a place to say it is both a founding document of this country upon which our status as a nation rests and a flawed, human effort designed with the issues of 1840 in mind; three short articles that to be relevant to succeeding generations will need to remain a living document open to debate.

Some today - on all sides of the argument - seem to want to say 'this is what it is and nothing else'. To speak for the signers as if they were there. To leave no room for doubt or compromise. That is a risky way to look at history.

The United States has fallen into this certainty trap, casting its constitution not as an effort to make rules for a government in a certain place and time, but as something sacred and non-negotiable. Something inviolate and holy.

Look at the debate of the right to bear arms in the second amendment. Rather than being seen as a response to an issue from the 1700s it has become for some akin to the word of God.

The result is increasingly polarisation. Why would we wish such certainty on our country? Insisting that we define the treaty and its principles once and for all could lead many places, but it ensures one thing. That the debate on te Tiriti becomes a zero-sum game that each side will feel it must win, or lose its voice forever. We are making the stakes too high.

As tempting as it is to want to resolve a debate once and for all, and in politics to get a win for your side that might outlive you, the risk is ongoing bitterness and division, the very thing everyone insists they are trying to avoid.

Treaty Grounds at sunrise

The Treaty Grounds at sunrise on Waitangi Day 2024. Photo: RNZ

New Zealand has a fluid and patchwork constitution. That creates its own problems, but it does allow us to adapt and evolve alongside our understanding of our past. And our present. And our future.

This is not to say there aren't facts and certainties in history. There are. But our understanding of that history and what we do with those facts is always evolving and up for debate. Which is a good thing. Because there's no more a single correct view of history than there was a single correct view amongst the people gathered at Waitangi in the early days of February in 1840.

If you want to understand the chaotic uncertainty swirling around that day, you only have to read the missionaries' quotes of the rangatira present or the 'on one hand-on the other hand' instructions William Hobson had from Lord Normanby, Britian's Secretary of State for War and Colonies.

Their concerns and motivations were many. People on both sides wanted to see Māori protected from the worst of a wider world that was about to change them forever. International trade and travel had been a part of life - especially in the north - for a couple of generations, but mass settlement was about to be something new. Māori sailors wanted protection on international ships. There were worries about the criminals coming across from Australia, navigation rights for Māori ships and traders, the impact of the French here and in Europe. Britain fretted about its empire in China, India and Afghanistan, and the rise of Russia. Māori were dealing with the traumatic impact of the Musket Wars, the Crown was wrestling with the potentially traumatic impact of thousands of its people arriving in a land beyond its sway.

So many threads. So many reasons to sign or not sign a treaty. So reductive to think we can boil it all down into a few lines, slogans or principles 184 years later.

The stone of history cannot be just shaken from our shoe. We have to learn to live with it by learning more about our past, listening more intently to each other and accepting that all our arguments are only part of a complex picture. We have to live with our history, not decide or judge it. Put down our chisels. Only then can we learn from it and from each other.

* Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the podcast team at RNZ.

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