Maori liberation versus the Treaty process

Maori radicals originally argued the Treaty was a fraud; this position was abandoned in favour of incorporation in the establishment's Treaty process
Maori radicals originally argued the Treaty was a fraud; this position was abandoned in favour of incorporation in the establishment’s Treaty process

The text of the article below is taken from Liberation blog, where it appeared on June 23, 2007.  The article itself goes back further, however, as it was first delivered as a talk at a meeting organised by the Anti-Capitalist Alliance in Wellington in 2004 and subsequently appeared in revolution magazine.  This also means that where the article refers to 20 years ago, it now means 30 years. 

Moreover, neither the author nor ourselves at Redline would today necessarily adhere to every crossed T and dotted I in the original.  For instance, state ownership does not automatically guarantee public access.  In terms of the solutions put forward by bourgeois parties, Peters’ advocacy of public domain was probably the most progressive.  However, as the original article notes, the only sure-fire guarantee of public access to the foreshore and seabed is making it, including the chunks currently in the hands of wealthy pakeha, truly public through abolishing capitalism.

The talk and article drew on material published in revolution magazine in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and in The Spark newspaper before 2011.  We will be reprinting some of this material on Redline in the future, as well as developing new material examining, for instance, the development of Maori capitalism, class divisions among Maori, the reification of cultural identities and different aspects of Maori-pakeha relations today.

From being left-wing opponents of the capitalist system, a whole layer of Maori radicals have been drawn into it; the path has been provided by the politics of Maori sovereignty
From being left-wing opponents of the capitalist system, a whole layer of Maori radicals have been drawn into it; the path has been provided by the politics of Maori sovereignty

Race relations and Maori politics have been one of the major political issues in New Zealand for some years now. Those on the left that are interested in true liberation need to formulate an alternative view on race relations – a view that rejects both Labour’s liberal Treaty politics as well as National’s continuing, contradictory and hypocritical “One law for all”. We need to argue against Maori nationalism and identity politics, and instead argue for a solution that unites the working class of all ethnicities and fights for true equality. This blog post aims to get across the alternative ideas on race relations and the Treaty that has previously been argued in revolution magazine and The Spark.

The left and Treaty politics

First we need to deal with the standard left-wing line on race relations in New Zealand. Since the early 1980s, practically every faction of the Left has adopted a position that the Treaty of Waitangi is this country’s “founding document”. A significant number also embraced the concept of tino rangatiratanga – or Maori Sovereignty – as their guiding principle when formulating specific solutions to the problems confronting Maori New Zealanders.

For 20 years now, Treaty politics have been promoted by left-wingers and liberals as the means for overcoming the extreme social and economic deprivation among Maori. The main vehicle for this programme has been the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 by the main Maori Chiefs and the British colonial governor to formally establish British rule in New Zealand.

In the 1980s in particular the NZ left became enmeshed in an ideological project at odds with its core values and objectives – “the politics of identity”. The advocates of identity politics proposed the “Tripod Theory” of exploitation, according to which race, gender and class comprise the separate – but equal – pillars of human oppression. They therefore rejected the Marxist view of identifying racism, sexism and homophobia as subordinate (but highly effective) strategies of oppression, which complement and intensify the dominant relationship within capitalism – which is class exploitation. Those who resisted the new paradigm were branded “racists” by the Maori activists and liberal pakeha who now dominated the left and set the framework for left politics.

It has to be pointed out, however, that this tripod trend was partly a reaction to an equally bad economistic position on the left before then. For many years on the left there was a backward position that tried to pretend that gender, racialised and national oppression were either non-existent or not important. For these leftists economic issues were all that were important. So in a sense you are looking at two extremes on the left: in the 1950s, 60s and 70s the left often ignored the oppression of women and Maori, but then in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s the left has become obsessed with these types of oppression, without locating them within capitalism. Class exploitation and the class division of society have been systematically downplayed.

The Fourth Labour Government

So the idea of the Tripod Theory that began in these small left-wing organizations, the ‘new social movements’ and among young, middle class liberal-left individuals was soon transmitted to the Labour Party. Labour came into power in 1984 and implemented, on the one hand, liberal social reforms and, on the other, neo-liberal economic reforms. It was no accident that these two trends occurred together.

Some right-wingers now want to make out that the Treaty initiatives were some kind of left-wing programme. Similarly, a lot of younger left people at present, who weren’t around at the time, actually think that the Treaty process was a left victory rather than a necessary aspect of neo-liberal social policy. But it is not just a fluke that social liberalism became the dominant form of establishment ideology in New Zealand at the same time as neo-liberalism became dominant as economic policy. Identity politics, state multiculturalism and ‘respect for difference’ make up the necessary ideology that arises from, accompanies and helps rationalise (and organise) neo-liberal economics.

The state created the Treaty industry with two chief purposes. One was to blunt Maori radicalism and incorporate Maori radicals within the system, especially after the 1975 Maori Land March and then the occupations at Bastion Point and Raglan in 1977-78. The other purpose was to create a Maori middle class (and even a Maori section of the bourgeoisie) which, among other things, would police Maori workers and youth on behalf of capital in general.

Labour justified bi-culturalism as necessary to reduce social and economic disadvantage, promoting the view that the problems confronting ordinary Maori can be solved by a ‘return’ to Maori culture. And, of course, the left went along with and supported most of this, because it was now enmeshed in the Tripod Theory of concentrating on race and gender, especially when the left perceived that the fights on economic issues were harder and/or were being lost. Being defeated on the economic front, the left retreated into the area of culture and hoped to win a cultural war, not understanding that a lot of the culture they embraced was actually not only fully reconcilable with neo-liberal economics but actually a positive aid to them. In the case of the ‘return’ to culture, this was also reified and ritualised culture, since the mode of production of traditional Maori society, which was the basis for traditional Maori culture, no longer existed.

The principal instrument for implementing the new race relations policies was the previously unused Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty was not between ethnic groups, but between elites of what were deemed to be legal entities: the more or less fictitious Confederation of northern chiefs, other chiefs, and the British Crown. It purported to give Maori the rights of British subjects while protecting their own traditional interests, including their tribal lands, and promising Maori the right to govern their own affairs. The Treaty was, in reality, a worthless piece of paper, behind which the colonial authorities launched a series of military campaigns against the Maori tribes, subjugating them and seizing millions of acres of land. The Treaty’s colonial motive was understood by Maori radicals in the 1960s and ’70s when they called the Treaty a fraud.

Socialists should also reject the Treaty of Waitangi which, after all, was an instrument of British colonialism and gave legal sanction to a massive land grab. To claim that it was an honourable document is to distort history beyond recognition. What is often forgotten today is that quite a number of chiefs refused to sign the Treaty, aware that the British government was intent on annexing the territory and reducing Maori to “breaking stones for the road”. The Treaty was not inspired by goodwill and partnership but at the insistence of British capitalists who wanted to seize land and also prevent working class immigrants securing land independently. Furthermore, the Treaty enshrined the rule of the monarchy over New Zealand, putting all citizens in the servile position of being subjects of the Queen. This is completely incompatible with any notion of equality. (It might also be noted that similar treaties were pushed by the British in other parts of the world at the same time and for the same purpose; there is nothing unique to NZ about this Treaty.)

But in the 1980s the government opened up a “Treaty claims” process, whereby Maori tribes could claim compensation for the alienation of their lands by the early colonial authorities and later NZ state. Subsequently, under both Labour and National, laws were enacted to ensure Maori representation on official bodies covering all aspects of state operations. In health and education, affirmative action programmes were established, the Maori language received official status and Maori religious observances given pride of place on formal occasions. A host of Maori consultancies emerged to advise on Treaty “obligations” in business, the public sector and the arts. The Reserve Bank, with Don Brash as head, had its own affirmative action programme to recruit Maori.

Following a series of landmark Treaty of Waitangi claims, which have still not run their course, hundreds of millions of dollars were paid to tribal entities and used to launch extensive business ventures. A host of laws, statutes and regulations were enacted to give effect to the suddenly-discovered Treaty “obligations” covering the entire range of official life – law, education, business, health care, public services and the unions. A Maori “cultural renaissance” was promoted in tourism, media, education and the arts.

A narrow layer of aspiring Maori lawyers, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, union officials and political leaders – along with the inevitable crew of pakeha hangers-on – seized the opportunity to cash in on the previous 150 years of dispossession, exploitation and impoverishment of the Maori people. These Maori leaders found themselves in demand. Far from being a fundamental challenge to the political establishment, the logic of “Maori self-determination” encouraged its proponents to carve out a special niche for themselves in business and politics – all in the name of assisting Maori people as a whole.

Twenty years of biculturalism

New Zealand has now had 20 years of politically-correct state biculturalism. What has it achieved? Far from resolving the social crisis confronting Maori, the process has helped widen the social gulf between rich and poor. State-organised bi-culturalism” and the Waitangi settlements process has created a small but relatively wealthy and influential Maori elite which boasts assets worth $NZ25 billion. At the same time, Maori workers, like the rest of the working class, have suffered the consequences of two decades of economic restructuring that have produced especially high levels of unemployment and poverty and gutted public welfare, education and health services. After two decades of official biculturalism Maori deprivation remains as entrenched as ever. Unemployment among Maori is officially 10 percent, twice the national average, while Maori continue to figure disproportionately in every social statistic relating to low household income, poor health, low levels of education and high levels of crime. Figures released by the Social Development Ministry show that of 18 key social indicators comparing the position of Maori with the rest of the population, six areas had recorded no change, five had “no clear trend”, while seven showed the chasm widening.

It is also telling that the cultural renaissance and cultural correctness in the health service has coincided with deteriorating Maori health statistics, and yet people like Tariana Turia still go on about the cause of extreme Maori ill-health being cultural. In fact, the reason Maori generally have worse health statistics is because they are generally poorer. And wealthy Maori, like wealthy pakeha, don’t get the diseases of poverty. Poor pakeha, like poor Maori, do.

The beneficiaries of biculturalism have not been ordinary Maori, but a small layer of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and political leaders who were specifically cultivated to placate and suppress the legitimate strivings of the majority of the Maori population. Most Maori, along with other oppressed sections of the working class, have received no special “preferences” at all. The bicultural approach and Treaty industry have basically politically disenfranchised every Maori who doesn’t fit into that approach – a majority of Maori since most Maori have little or no connection with iwi organisations, because they either don’t know their iwi or they live outside of its boundaries. Like all forms of identity politics, which fundamentally accept the framework of the capitalist profit system, seeking to elevate one or other secondary characteristic such as race, sex, skin colour or ethnic origin above class interests, the politics of “biculturalism” and Maori “self determination” have proven to be a dead-end.

Biculturalism co-opted by the National Party

Now I want to turn my criticism to those on the right. In the 1990s a political consensus developed in mainstream politics when the National Party adopted Labour’s Treaty and biculturalism politics. Although initially critical of Treaty politics – in a similar way to what Don Brash is today – National came to power in 1990 and spent nine years in government during which they were enthusiastic advocates of Treaty settlements and race-based politics. In fact National probably wrote more Treaty of Waitangi references into law than Labour ever did.

By 2004, Don Brash was challenging this entire process by signaling a major revision of the status of the Treaty of Waitangi, and arguing against race-based programmes of funding in favour of needs-based policies. In reaction to Brash’s Orewa speech, most of the left has just foamed at the mouth and made no serious analysis or paid any serious attention to what he has said in contextualising the speech. For them, it is merely some kind of ardent racist reactionary position. In fact, as Brash himself has pointed out, he favours Maori language continuing to be funded by the government so it is available to be learnt as widely as people wish; he recognises past injustices and legitimate grievances and that these need to be compensated for financially via Treaty settlements; and he favours including special consultation with Maori in legislation such as Conservation Acts where sites of particular importance to Maori are involved, such as urupa. His position is not some old-fashioned extreme right-wing position. It is basically an old-fashioned market-based, but genuinely liberal, position.

The problems with it are two-fold:

1. The market does not treat all people equally, but reproduces inequality (and not just class inequality, but inequality along gender and racialised lines as well). So it’s like, “everyone is equal but some are more equal than others”. What Brash favours is not some Pauline Hanson politics – Hanson is not a big fan of the free market, as she represents a petty-bourgeois layer crushed by the market. Rather what Brash favours is the idealised capitalist position of complete formal legal equality – an equality which, in practice, is continuously undermined or thwarted by capitalist social relations.

2. Talk of equality from Brash, Key and co. is entirely hypocritical. This is the guy who, as head of the Reserve Bank, declared that 5 percent unemployment was necessary for the ‘recovery’. This is the guy who has a couple of months holiday a year and yet opposes one week’s extra holiday for workers. This is the guy who was part and parcel of the capitalist state apparatus which oversaw the biggest transfer of wealth from the working class to the bourgeoisie in NZ history – the Rogernomics/Ruthanasia reforms of Labour and National in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

Brash never supported equality in any meaningful way. He supported formal legal equality for women and Maori – and probably some degree of legal equality for gay women and men – but he is not for equal treatment in any deeper way (and most oppression these days is not actually institutionalised in law in NZ, it is done through the natural operations of the market).

But although Brash was a hypocrite, does this mean that a needs-based approach is inherently wrong? Quite the contrary. Socialists should support a needs-based – or universalist – approach. It’s interesting that Richard Prebble has been criticising Brash’s call for a needs-based policy, saying that “such a policy amounts to socialism”. While it seems rather amusing to criticise the National Party as being socialist, Prebble is actually correct when he suggests that a real needs-based approach is, by its very nature, connected to socialism or, at the very least, points in the direction of socialism. And this is Brash’s big problem. National is not going to fund a genuine needs-based class approach. That would require massively increasing state funding for public services and for social welfare and reversing the entire economic direction he, National and Labour are committed to.

A major reason why an ethnic-based approach was bought in in the first place was because capitalism, in a period of protracted economic problems, was forced to ration the provision of services. Ethnic-based approaches in the context of an ongoing economic malaise are a means to ration resources rather than provide what all people actually need.

So, for example, instead of providing smoking-withdrawal programmes for everyone who wants to quit smoking, you only provide them to Maori women. There are also some age-based rationing programmes. Like instead of providing free mammograms and any and every kind of breast cancer (or any cancer) testing to all women (and all men, for that matter), you only provide them to older women.

These forms of capitalist austerity can be ideologically presented as especially “sensitive” to Maori women, or especially “sensitive” to older women, and therefore the state gets away with the rationing of services. People don’t attack them because they don’t want to look like they are “insensitive” to Maori women or to older women. In reality, arguing for the extension of any useful programmes to all sections of the population to whom they are relevant – ie a universalist rather than a race- or gender-based approach – incorporates all and therefore is much more genuinely “sensitive”. And, within a universalist approach, you can still put more emphasis on particular target groups who are more likely to suffer the particular problem.

What we should argue for is a real needs-based approach. A needs-based approach would actually deliver proportionately more for Maori – because they are disproportionately poor – but would also meet the needs of pakeha workers and poor (a majority of the poor are actually pakeha). A needs-based approach lifts up the most deprived Maori (who have entirely missed out due to the race-based approach), unites Maori and pakeha workers, improves the lives of all workers and poor, and challenges the capitalist system.

The Foreshore and Seabed

The left in New Zealand actually had little to say about this debate, but where it has made pronouncements this has often taken the usual unthinking line of supporting any struggle waged by any Maori, regardless of its merits. Peace groups, far-left organisations, and parties like the Greens have come out against government moves to bring about public ownership of the foreshore and seabed and thus guarantee public access.

Interestingly, the ACT party also backs the right of Maori to fight for beach ownership in court, saying government proposals amount to ‘property seizure’ (exactly the same line as Maori lawyers such as Moana Jackson and also the tino rangatiratanga lobby). ACT has actually been quite sympathetic to Maori claims on the foreshore in so far as they enmesh Maori in claims on the basis of essentially private property rights. ACT sometimes plays for the redneck rural vote, but their urban liberal upper and middle class white vote is also quite happy with the type of Maori claims that help draw some Maori into business and into private property thinking. Likewise the Business Roundtable also supports Maori making foreshore claims, arguing that property rights need to be protected and also that Maori should receive just and fair compensation if their property rights are exhausted by the state. By contrast a Massey University study on race relations, which received very little publicity, found that a majority of Maori favour public ownership of the foreshore and seabed. This may not suit ACT, iwi capitalists and their allies on what passes for most of the “left”, but is hardly surprising for us.

Most Maori have, unlike most of the left, worked out that they would not be any better off with iwi ownership of the foreshore. After all, the call for iwi ownership of the foreshore is not a call for resources to be given to Maori in state houses in Porirua, Wainoni or South Auckland. In fact it is a further corporatisation of land, which is what has happened with Ngai Tahu land ownership in the South Island.

Today’s iwi are more like capitalist business enterprises than they are like the iwi of classical Maori society before capitalism. Ngai Tahu, for instance, is the biggest corporate land-owner in the South Island with several hundreds of millions of dollars of assets, a chunk of which underwrites the large salaries of its executives and consultants. Meanwhile, the average Maori income in the South Island is about $14,000 per year, and the statistics for Maori continue to worsen (as do those for working class pakeha). There therefore seems no progressive reason why this multi-million dollar outfit should get the foreshore as well to add to their property portfolio. Therefore so-called ‘Maori’ control of the foreshore is not Maori control at all – it is control by ‘iwi’ business interests which are more like modern capitalist corporations than anything even vaguely resembling pre-1840 Maori social organisations.

Nationalisation, by contrast, could ensure that no private interests – domestic or foreign, pakeha or Maori – can section off the foreshore and seabed as their own property. Within this, it would be quite possible to protect Maori customary access for food-gathering etc. In fact the most practical way to ensure customary access for Maori is to make sure such resources stay out of private hands, including that of any iwi which might commercialise such property. The foreshore should be common land, which means national ownership, with full rights of access to everyone, along with guaranteed protection of sacred Maori sites, just as we would protect graveyards full of pakeha. Within the general idea of nationalisation, the best specific option is whichever one makes it hardest for any future government to sell off public land although, of curse, we know that these kinds of measures are only finally settled by the balance of class forces in struggle.

In supporting nationalisation, the left also needs to highlight the hypocrisy of the National Party, with its “one standard of citizenship for all”. Such slogans might be a good idea, but the parties of the right have no intention of implementing this egalitarian standard. To highlight this, we should call for any nationalisation of the foreshore to extend to individual (and mainly pakeha) privately- owned parts of the foreshore. This is a move that National and the other parties of the right would never support. Furthermore, the left also needs to challenge the right of property owners to block access to all beaches and waterways. A 2004 land access report showed that at least 30% of land adjoining water is in private ownership. The Queen’s chain is therefore a myth, and in fact during the mid-1990s the last National government attempted to erode the Queen’s chain even further.

The call for land nationalisation is useful in that it raises issues of socialism, working class unity against racism and economic exploitation and also allows the left to direct fire and public anger at big private landowners and their friends in local and national goverrnment rather than on Maori. Genuine radicals should be working to improve the social statistics of Maori and organise the redistribution of resources on the basis of need, not on the basis of what an elite layer of Maori and pakeha want for themselves.

Maori Sovereignty

Another posting is needed to go into all the reasons that the the left should not support Maori sovereignty, but it is important to point out that Maori nationalism rests on the idea that Maori are a separate nation. However there is no separate Maori nation nor was there ever one. Indeed the word Maori was not used to describe the population of the iwi existing in the pre-European period, and only came into general usage in the late 1800s. Instead, in New Zealand the development of capitalism has created a new nation out of diverse peoples who came here at different points in time. These people are now highly intermixed, intermarried and interbred. This has meant that the ethnic categories of Maori, pakeha etc are all essentially relative and increasingly meaningless.

Although radicals and liberals often like to draw comparisons between the Maori sovereignty cause and foreign struggles for national liberation, such a comparison immediately points up the problems with the very conceptions used by these groups in New Zealand.

National liberation movements represent specific oppressed nations, not the thoroughly intermixed population of a junior imperialist country like New Zealand. National liberation movements are forged explicitly against tribalism, while the “new Maori radicals” emphasise tribalism. National liberation movements also reject fighting for return of long-gone tribal lands, emphasising instead the rights of landless tenant farmers, agricultural workers etc to land through the division of big colonial landholdings. National liberation movements are modernising social forces. They challenge colonialism not because it uprooted past local cultural traditions but because it is an obstacle to modernity and progress. They understand that there can be no return to pre-capitalist modes of production.

Colonial powers attempting to prevent national liberation, on the other hand, maintain (and even create) tribal divisions, often even making out that these represent separate nations. The attempt of the apartheid regime to make out that there were a whole number of different nations in South Africa is a classic case of this. In contrast, those fighting apartheid stressed that there was a single South African nation, created historically by social, economic and political developments in the country. It was only on this basis that the apartheid system was shaken to its core.


It is time that the left began to seriously address the question of class in this country. This is the best hope of offering some real solutions to Maori (and growing pakeha) impoverishment, rather than insisting on subordinating Maori and pakeha workers to a deal signed by the British Crown and a chiefly elite atop a long-gone form of social organization and production.

The last 20 years has shown that middle and upper class women can get equality, while working class women are ground down. In the same way middle and upper class Maori can get equality while working class Maori are ground down. The solution to this problem is to unite workers across ethnic and gender lines and do so in a way which takes into account the double oppression of Maori workers, women workers, Pacific workers and other oppressed groups. That sort of unity is precisely what is needed in the fight against all the inequalities in society.