A Response to Chris
Posted on 22:37, May 12th, 2011 by Lew
Chris Trotter has written a response to the previous discussions regarding the Treaty, titled Talking Past Each Other (a crisp description of the comments threads on both prior posts). I would usually respond there, but Blogger comments are presently down and I have time now, so here it is. It’s a bit more than a comment, at any rate.
I think Chris’ post is intended as a critique of my political and historical naïveté (a common theme), and a perception that I’m treating the history of Aotearoa as a ‘morality play’, to borrow Scott Hamilton’s phrase. In spite of that I find in it quite a lot to agree with. In particular, the characterisation of the agendas of the parties to the Treaty, which captures well the diversity, lack of cross-cultural and long-term perspective, and motive chaos within each camp; and the final affirmation that, whatever the history, the future of Māori and Pākehā must be together. The final paragraph, especially; I cannot agree more strongly.
I also have some problems with the piece; in particular the argument that violating the Treaty was necessary to the establishment of a functional colony and that, ultimately, it was for the best that the Crown did breach the Treaty because we ended up with this lovely country. I don’t agree, and to my mind this sort of let-bygones-be-bygones, it-all-turned-out-for-the-best thinking is a very convenient position to take when it’s not your land which was taken. But our differences on this point are well documented and I don’t intend to relitigate this disagreement here (or in comments; honestly, there’s enough of it on the other two thread!s)
Nevertheless, I do also think the piece mischaracterises my position. There are two main aspects to this. First, Chris says it is naïve to view the Treaty as a contract — and I agree, if it is to be viewed only as a contract. My framing of the two preceding posts in these terms was deliberately simplistic, as I noted to Hugh in comments to the first. But it was deliberate inasmuch as there exists such a paucity of understanding of the actual historical context of the Treaty as it actually occurred, and of its significance as a founding or mediating document, that a simple and clearly Pākehā frame of reference is needed to explicate it. It was not just a contract, but the Treaty was among its other roles, a contract laying out the grants and consideration of an agreement to colonise undertaken between the Crown and local rangatira. Viewing it as a contract, I think, forms a useful minimum basis for understanding, and in particular for the establishment of expectations of what should and could have occurred following its signing.
Of course, history isn’t so simple as that, and this gives rise to the second point: Chris (and others, particularly the commenters on the posts) seem to have interpreted my call for the Treaty to be honoured in the most literal terms — that, if my argument is true, Pākehā have a responsibility to return every square foot of raupatu land; pay reparation for every man killed in the Land Wars; and that Pākehā in 2011 must beat their breasts and prostrate themselves before the descendants of those fortunate enough to survive with whakapapa intact. I mean nothing of the sort. What I mean is that, even if it were for the best, even if breaches were necessary, there exists a moral responsibility to recognise these breaches. I disagree that admission of breaches is “accurrate but trivial”, as Chris puts it; if the agreement was made in good faith (as, having been authorised by the Queen, we have a right to assume it was) then the breaches matter, and give rise to an obligation on the part of the party in breach. Where my point has been lost, I think, is that this obligation extends to making reparation for the breaches to the mutual, minimal satisfaction of both parties. Māori, as I have kept pointing out, have not been unreasonable in this regard, invariably accepting reparations of a tiny fraction of the value of the initial breach, or of no economic value whatsoever — settling for symbolic gestures, apologies and recognition. The obligation, I argue, is to negotiate in similarly good faith. Inevitably, neither party will be entirely happy, but that’s not a realistic object — the object may be to reach a state of ‘minimal satisfaction’, a solution which, although merely tolerable to both parties, does enough to prevent further disputes.
And the end goal of this is the same as what Chris hopes for — a future together. By demonstrating good faith and making just reparation, we make progress toward solving two significant problems: one is the cultural and material circumstances in which Māori find themselves, largely as a consequence of successive governments’ lack of adherence to the Treaty. The other is the status of Pākehā society, which by acting in such poor faith has too long denied its own kaupapa; successive leaders, including the odious Prendergast, denying the existence and authority of a Treaty signed in the name of their own sovereign; and even having eventually recognised it, doing so only in a mean and grudging fashion. These circumstances — both the material circumstances and the lack of good faith by Pākehā — give rise to the ‘attitude’ problems among Māori referred to extensively in the prior comments by Andrew W and Phil Sage, which they argue creates a cycle of dysfunction. The same circumstances give rise to the Pākehā guilt to which Chris refers, and of which he has accused me in the past of being victim.
But I say again: this isn’t about guilt; none of us Pākehā held the sabre in hand or pulled the trigger. Many of us, myself included, have no ancestors who were here at the time of the Treaty’s signing and its most egregious breaches (mine were still in Skye, Kerry, Eindhoven and Brabant labouring under their own troubles at the time). But as Chris says, we have — and our society has — grown and prospered at the expense of the country’s original inhabitants, and we share in the responsibility to make that right. It’s not about dwelling in the past — it’s about moving into the future, which we cannot only do once the misgivings of the past have been settled. Although Pākehā have tried to do so, it should be clear now that we cannot force Māori to forget — and nor should we. But we can work together — as much as possible without self-flagellation or haughty defensiveness — toward squaring the ledger, purging the bad blood and cleaning the slate so that we can go forward, unencumbered, into a future as iwi tahi tātou.