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Whither Waitangi?

Biculturalism on the rocks in New Zealand
June 2024, no. 465

Whither Waitangi?

Biculturalism on the rocks in New Zealand
June 2024, no. 465

From across the ditch, New Zealand can look like a place where settlers and Indigenous people have forged a successful, postcolonial modus vivendi. The image conceals more than it reveals. As in Australia, relations between Indigenous people and the state are fraught. At the November 2023 election, right-wing minority parties won electoral support by rejecting what they have characterised as special privileges to Māori. And a long-standing, bipartisan consensus on ‘biculturalism’ is breaking down.

At this year’s Waitangi Day celebrations, held annually to mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Māori rangatira (leaders) and the British Crown in 1840, the leaders of the new right-wing coalition government, led by Christopher Luxon, were drowned out when they spoke on the Treaty grounds in the Bay of Islands. Forceful challenges were issued by Māori leaders about the coalition’s policies regarding the Treaty, a proposed referendum on the Treaty’s principles, and the matter of co-governance. Protests and ongoing debate in mainstream and social media underline hard feelings about the issues at stake for a range of New Zealanders.

What is this all about? Many Māori are protesting a rolling back of policies undertaken by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government. Those included a deepening of biculturalism through an expansion of the use of the Māori language in the public service and the design of a new compulsory history curriculum for schools that focuses on Māori history and colonisation. The Ardern government also pursued what were called ‘co-governance’ initiatives. In 2022, Labour created a separate, national Māori health authority. Perhaps most controversial was the ‘Three Waters’ policy to centralise ailing water infrastructure. Currently managed by local councils, the government designed regional advisory groups that would be established according to a fifty-fifty split in representation between local councils and mana whenua (local Indigenous authorities). Around seventeen per cent of New Zealanders identify as having some Māori ancestry, and a growing number of these identify with at least one iwi (tribe), though a smaller proportion of Māori are formal tribal members.

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Comments (2)

  • On my reading, this article has little to do with historical coincidences and even less to do with the concept of multiculturalism in Australia. It does, however, provide powerful insights into the potential waning of the imperative to make amends with indigenous groups in both countries as notions of nationhood become diluted by history.

    Ironically, this seems to be grounded in an idea that we are all of the same status and that no one group should be favoured over another, regardless of their inherited legacies. It would be tempting to imagine this is borne of the same principle as egalitarianism; that is, a fair go for all, but in this age it is more likely to be the product of simplistic concepts of the rights of the individual.
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    09 June 2024
  • Excellent article, Miranda. The historical coincidence of the triumph of neo-liberalism and support for biculturalism in NZ and multiculturalism in Australia in the 1980s is a key development in both countries.
    Posted by Marilyn Lake
    31 May 2024

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