Geelong Advertiser, Tuesday 4 March 2008, p. 13.
As Australians embark on coming to terms with some of the episodes in their past, including what happens after an apology to the stolen generation, it is interesting to compare what has happened here with Aotearoa New Zealand where a treaty with the Maori has been in existence since 1840. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by more than 500 Maori chiefs over a period of several months. It remains a major influence on relations between the different groups in the country, even though circumstances have changed considerably. The Maori and the English versions of the Treaty differed and have been a source of issues ever since. The Maoris understood they were secured in possession of their land but granted protection, while the British thought they had sovereignty and control. In practice many Maori were dispossessed of their land by the newcomers and there was sporadic and sometimes effective resistance for several years.
Yet it was only in 1975 that the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to consider breaches to the treaty. In 1995 the Office of Treaty Settlements began negotiations over outstanding claims about Crown acts and omissions, primarily about land and other deprivations, and just under $NZ800 ($A730) million in compensation has been paid. A number of Deeds of Settlement have been agreed and the Office and other government departments have a continuing role in monitoring compliance with these agreements. Some of the sums paid to Maori groups have been put to very good use in the creation of flourishing business and investment concerns which now generate ongoing income and employment.
Maori have been able to obtain far more direct political representation in New Zealand than Aborigines in Australia. The Maori Representation Act of 1867 created four Maori parliamentary seats. It was intended as a temporary measure until the Maori joined the general electorate. At the time it was based on tribal identification and geographical areas. Now it is considered obsolete because many Maori no longer have close links to their traditional tribal areas. Of the 21 Maori in the New Zealand parliament in 2007 only seven sit for Maori seats. Only half the eligible Maori choose to register on Maori rolls.
The New Zealand parliament is a unicameral one, that is it has only one house. Voting is by a mixed member proportional system in which electors vote twice, once for a party, which determines the composition of the parliament, and once for a local member, which decides who will fill the seats. It sounds complex but seems to be widely accepted and understood by the voters.
On the surface, relations between the various groups in New Zealand society seem harmonious. Maori language and culture is widely celebrated and taught in schools. But at least one group of Maori continues to press for an independent state within New Zealand and there was an incident last year when the police claimed to have broken up a major terrorist campaign, though the exercise may have been completely botched and was certainly highly controversial.
As with Aborigines in Australia, Maori life expectancy and levels of income are lower than those of the rest of the population. There is considerable poverty, in rural areas of the country in particular. Rates of imprisonment and unemployment among Maori are higher. Drug and alcohol abuse is visible and widespread. So imbalances within New Zealand society remain, though they are not, on the whole, as great as in Australia. New Zealand experience shows that there are ways of making progress in improving relations between disparate groups in society.
When we contemplate reconciliation with the descendants of our Aboriginal population we need to ensure that the content and form of any agreements mean the same to all the parties involved, if we are to reduce the potential for future strife. The former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, said in 1996, ‘Theoretically, there could be national reconciliation without any redress at all of the dispossession and other wrongs sustained by the Aborigines. As a practical matter, however, it is apparent that recognition of the need for appropriate redress for present disadvantage flowing from past injustice and oppression is a pre-requisite of reconciliation. There is, I believe, widespread acceptance of such a need.’