The ‘full and final’ fantasy

Why Treaty settlements do not mean that we can move on from history

This was a commissioned opinion piece for the Post Treaty Settlements project at Victoria University of Wellington. The opinion pieces were published in 2011 on the project’s website, but are no longer available online, so I am republishing mine here. Apart from a couple of minor points of clarification, I have not revised or updated the original text.

One of the key promises of the historical Treaty settlement process is that we can, as a society, deal fully and finally with past injustices, thereby allowing us to achieve a sense of emotional “closure” in relation to historical wrongs, and to move forward as one people. Unresolved grievances about the past are said to be holding back Māori progress,[i] and therefore hindering the development of the country as a whole. What we need, in this view, is to get “beyond grievance” by dealing with the historical impact of colonisation on Māori once and for all. Often the process is described in therapeutic terms: we are “healing our history”,[ii] or “achieving closure and moving on”.[iii]

The emphasis on the completion of Treaty settlements as both an end point (“closure”) and the start of a new phase (“moving on”) is understandable and, in part, justifiable. It has helped to maintain Pākehā acceptance of the Treaty settlement process, even if that acceptance has often been grudging. Most Pākehā, I suggest, genuinely want to be done with the settling of historical grievances, and their hopes in this respect are not entirely misplaced. It is quite possible that Treaty settlements will be durable, and that future generations will not need to return to the negotiating table over issues such as historical land loss. There is, too, every reason to hope that the settlement of Treaty grievances will mark the start of a new era of more collaborative relationships between hapū or iwi and the Crown. What the post-settlement era will not bring, however, is any sense of finality with respect to New Zealand’s colonial past. There are at least three reasons why we will not, in my view, be able simply to “move on” from the history of Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.

First, any historical interpretation is always open to debate and revision. Researchers coming afresh to the history of Crown-Māori relations will inevitably find different answers to some of the same questions that have been asked in the current Treaty settlement process. Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that future generations may well ask different questions from those that have concerned us over the past four decades or so. This is not to suggest that Treaty settlements have a flimsy historical basis that could be overturned tomorrow. We undoubtedly have a much better understanding of the process of colonisation and its impact on Māori as a result of the research carried out for the Treaty settlement process. But we cannot say that we now have an account of the Crown’s fulfilment or non-fulfilment of its Treaty obligations to stand for all time.

Second, it is misleading to draw a sharp line between historical and contemporary Treaty grievances. Fundamental questions in debates about contemporary issues, such as questions about the status of Māori as indigenous people or of the Treaty of Waitangi as part of New Zealand’s constitution, are rooted in history. Moreover, Māori will continue to protest about what they see as breaches of their rights under the Treaty taking place in the present day. In doing so, they will inevitably look to Māori experiences of injustice in the past, and to past Māori resistance to injustice, for analogies, precedents and justifications. Think, for example, of the way in which the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 was described by many Māori as a 21st-century raupatu (confiscation); or of the historical analogies that were drawn with the October 2007 police raids in Te Urewera.[iv] Such revisiting of the past by Māori could, in turn, cause Pākehā to relitigate the accounts of the past that have emerged from the Treaty settlement process, particularly if Māori seek to give greater legal weight to those accounts. For example, in the debate about the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, many Māori argued that Māori should not be prevented from establishing customary rights in the foreshore and seabed by loss of adjoining land through acknowledged Crown Treaty breaches. If the test for Māori customary rights were to incorporate recognition of past Treaty breaches, this would undoubtedly lead to renewed Pākehā questioning of those breaches.

Third, the Treaty settlement process has not brought us to a point where Māori and non-Māori have a shared view of the history of this country. On the contrary, I suggest that we still see history in fundamentally different ways, and that these differences operate at many levels. There are different understandings of the facts of history, and different interpretations of the causes and significance of particular events. For example, Māori and non-Māori still tend to have very different views about why rangatira signed the Treaty of Waitangi, and what signing the Treaty meant to them, although such differences can also exist between Māori and other Māori, or between Pākehā and other Pākehā. More fundamental are our different ways of understanding history, different lenses through which history is viewed: differences, for example, in the relative weight given to oral and written narratives; in attitudes to causation and chance; in the nature of identification with ancestors; and in the extent to which the past is distinguished clearly from the present.[v] While Pākehā instinctively talk about “putting the past behind us” and moving on, te reo Māori reflects a world view in which the past (ngā rā o mua, the days in front) can lie ahead of us.

What we are left with at the end of the Treaty settlement process, then, is not a settled, consensus view of history from which we can safely move on. The idea that any account of history can ever be full and final is a fantasy. Talk of dealing with the past once and for all and then moving forward as one people is at once utopian and faintly totalitarian. As the Australian anthropologist Gillian Cowlishaw writes: “the chaotic rivalry for the truth is a necessary part of social functioning, with historians finding and telling the ways in which we do not know the past, reviving what has not been noticed, finding the new in the old in order to keep the disputes about the truth alive. To close down the past by telling the truth once and for all is a seriously alarming prospect.”[vi] Instead of seeking closure, I believe that in the post-settlement era we will need to remain open to different views of our past, to dealing with unresolved legacies of that past, and to thinking about how our different histories continue to influence the ways in which we meet the challenges of the future.

[i] This is not a new idea. In 1925, for example, Prime Minister Gordon Coates told his Cabinet colleagues that “the sense of injustice which undoubtedly exists is hampering the spread of progressive ideas among sections of the Maori race”, and would not go away unless the Crown provided an  opportunity for “the ventilation of these alleged grievances before some tribunal”: Coates, memorandum for Cabinet, 10 September 1925, fo. 1, MA 85/8, Archives New Zealand, quoted in Mark Hickford, “Strands from the Afterlife of Confiscation: Property Rights, Constitutional Histories and the Political Incorporation of Maori, 1920s”, in Richard Boast and Richard Hill (eds), Raupatu: The Confiscation of Maori Land (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009), p. 190.

[ii] Robert Consedine and Joanna Consedine, Healing our History: The Challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2001). See also Hiwi Tauroa, Healing the Breach: One Maori’s Perspective on the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: William Collins, 1989); Office of Treaty Settlements, Healing the Past, Building a Future: A Guide to Treaty of Waitangi Claims and Negotiations with the Crown (Wellington, 2002).

[iii] Patrick Snedden, Pakeha and the Treaty: Why it’s our Treaty Too (Auckland: Random House, 2005), p. 94. This therapeutic view of the process of righting historical wrongs is certainly not unique to New Zealand: see Manfred Berg and Bernd Schaefer, “Introduction”, in Manfred Berg and Bernd Schaefer (eds), Historical Justice in International Perspective: How Societies are Trying to Right the Wrongs of the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 9.

[iv] Many of the articles in Danny Keenan (ed.), Terror in our Midst? Searching for Terror in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: Huia, 2008) draw attention to historical parallels with the 2007 police raids. However, see Māmari Stephens’s words of caution about drawing analogies with the past: Māmari Stephens, “Beware the Hollow ‘Calabash’: Narrative, Analogy and the Acts of Suppression” in ibid., pp. 181-193.

[v] Judith Binney has explored some of these differences: see “Māori Oral Narratives, Pākehā Written Texts”, in Judith Binney, Stories Without End: Essays 1975-2010 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2010), pp. 71-85, and the Epilogue to Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, 1995), esp. pp. 522-527.

[vi] Gillian Cowlishaw, “Arbiters of the Past”, Meanjin, vol. 65, no. 1, 2005, p. 212. See also Bain Attwood, “Settling Histories, Unsettling Pasts: Reconciliation and Historical Justice in a Settler Society”, in Manfred Berg and Bernd Schaefer (eds), Historical Justice in International Perspective: How Societies are Trying to Right the Wrongs of the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 237-238.