Feature: the union movement and the Te Tiriti

The Treaty of Waitangi means whatever you want it to mean, as long as you’re against it. Columnists condemn it, courts misconstrue it, and some activists used to call it a “fraud”. For tourists visiting the country this must come across as a little strange. Americans venerate their founding documents. The French do too. On International Human Rights Day thousands of South Africans take to the streets to commemorate their constitutional anniversary. But for a good number of New Zealanders the Treaty seems best left in the 19th century.

We can call this the Don Brash position, and it remains stubbornly popular. In 2011 a UMR poll found only 55 percent of New Zealanders agreed that the Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document, a historical fact so obvious anything less than 100 percent is a worry. In the run-up to Waitangi Day in 2018 The AM Show published a poll asking New Zealanders whether we should rename Waitangi Day “New Zealand Day.” That same year The Herald’s Mike Hosking asked “what’s the point” of commemorating our founding day anyway.

From here it might seem as if things are as bleak as they ever were, but beneath the misunderstandings and misconstructions important shifts are happening. In 2012 the Ministry of Education surveyed 4000 year nine students and found that two-thirds agreed the Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document. Speaking at the Treaty Grounds in February Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told her audience she is committed to building a country where the Treaty is part of a living history.

“The rednecks are never going to put the Treaty back in a box,” said Syd Keepa, the Council of Trade Union’s Vice-President Māori. “And unions helped lead the way.” In the 1970s and 80s trade union leaders like the late Syd Jackson were helping lead the movement to secure Treaty justice. “Union members and leaders were at every struggle. The reason Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) remained undeveloped for so long was because union members put a green ban on the site, that means they wouldn’t work on the site as long as Ngāti Whātua opposed it,” explained Keepa.

Bastion Point is a promontory above Tāmaki Drive, one of the wealthiest square miles in the country. In 1977 hundreds of activists from the Ōrākei Māori Action Committee occupied Takaparawhā, urging the country to join their calls to end development on one of Ngāti Whātua’s last remaining parcels of land. The surrounding land, alongside most of the Auckland isthmus, was taken from local iwi in breach of the Treaty. “When the army and the cops came in in 1978 to take the activists off their own land union members across Auckland went on a wildcat (illegal) strike,” said Keepa.

“This is what the union movement owes Māori under the Treaty – solidarity.”

The relationship between Māori and unions reaches back to the turn of the twentieth century. In 1919 Bob Tūtaki, Ngāti Kahungunu, a shearer and union organiser, travelled the country urging Māori to support the formation of the New Zealand Workers’ Union. “Let us stand up with one common mind ... stick together, everybody, remember that old Māori philosophy, “tatau tatau”, meaning altogether,” he would tell his fellow workers. But despite the long relationship, and some famous acts of solidarity along the way, some unions still struggled to include Māori in institutional life with the Waterside Workers’ Union head office refusing to print recruitment and advice in te reo Māori for its nearly all- Māori membership on the North Island’s East Coast.

 “The PSA has been taking big steps forward,” said Sector Māngai for DHBs and Māori mental health specialist Lesley Dixon. “We have our Rūnanga and we can even elect rūnanga delegates to represent us in the workplace. It’s about cultural safety for many, and it’s about the meeting the obligations under the Treaty for the PSA itself.” The Public Service Association has almost 6000 Māori members and membership surveys have found those Māori are more likely to have primary care responsibilities, more likely to be active in the union, and more likely to feel satisfied and empowered in their work.

“Our Rūnanga structure lets Māori be Māori,” said Dixon. “But more than that it gives us a stake in the decision-making of the PSA itself – and that’s what the Treaty is about. Yes, consultation, but more than that it means power-sharing.” Under the Treaty Article II of the Māori language version – the version the Waitangi Tribunal prefers and the version international law doctrines prefer – says Māori retain their “tino rangatiratanga” while the Crown acquires “kāwanatanga.” These competing terms are the source of more than a century of angst of where power lies.

Kāwanatanga first appears in the preamble to the Treaty and historian and language expert Professor Margaret Mutu translates it as “governorship over British subjects,” meaning kāwanatanga is what is termed a relational concept. Tino rangatiratanga appears later in the document and is usually translated as unfettered chieftainship. So while the English text says that the rangatira who sign surrender their sovereignty to the Crown, the Māori text says the rangatira retain what is the closest power to sovereignty in the Māori world, tino rangatiratanga. In other words, the English text asks rangatira to cede what they just affirmed in the Māori text.

“It’s Te Tiriti that matters,” adds Dixon, noting that the overwhelming majority of rangatira signed the Māori language version. This also matters in the union context as well. “Remember unions aren’t the Crown,” said Keepa, “but they’re still part of the Treaty.” Tangata whenua on one side – people of the land – and tangata tiriti on the other – people of the Treaty. The Crown undertook to recognise tino rangatiratanga in exchange for its power to govern its own subjects, but those same subjects – or citizens as we say now – are also bound to recognise Māori as tangata whenua with all the powers of rangatiratanga.

“There’s heaps of work to do,” both Keepa and Dixon told me. “But unions are well-placed to lead it. We should do it out of solidarity,” said Keepa.

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