Story: Biculturalism

Page 3. Continuing debates

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‘Not bicultural enough’

Biculturalism has been criticised for not going far enough, restricting the tino rangatiratanga guaranteed to Māori in te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi). Some have argued that reform of existing institutions and processes is superficial and does little to advance Māori and treaty rights. They believe that true biculturalism demands the development of different and specifically Māori institutions to express the treaty partnership more meaningfully. In 2015 the Iwi Chairs Forum released Matike mai, a report which advocated for constitutional transformation in Aotearoa. It proposed a number of models which would allow Māori to exercise authority (by Māori, for Māori) alongside non-Māori. In 2019, the government commissioned an independent report called He puapua. This talked about how Aotearoa New Zealand could recognise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in New Zealand. It discussed ways for Māori to exercise authority from a basis of tikanga Māori.

Multiculturalism or biculturalism?

New Zealand is home to many different peoples and cultures, but the state effectively recognises only the dominant Pākehā culture and the indigenous Māori culture. Some people would prefer that New Zealand was officially multicultural. This would mean, in policy terms, that the state would officially recognise and provide for the culture, language and rights of multiple cultures, not just Pākehā and Māori.

However, people who support biculturalism believe an official multicultural policy would make Māori culture and language no more important than other cultures and languages. They argue that te Tiriti o Waitangi establishes a particular expectation for the Crown to protect the rights of Māori. Many people who support biculturalism see it as an important foundation for a successful multicultural New Zealand. It is important that all people have the freedom to exercise their culture preferences; the debate is about which cultures should get official recognition.

Multi- or bicultural?

Ranginui Walker (Whakatōhea) once remarked, ‘Māori remind Pākehā that becoming bicultural enough to be at ease in the other founding culture of the nation is the first step towards becoming multicultural.’1 In 1997, Race Relations Conciliator Rajen Prasad argued for a new way to think about New Zealand which avoided the debates of the past. He described New Zealand as ‘a multi-ethnic society with an indigenous culture and with a founding document that regulates the relationship between iwi and Crown.’2

Bi-national or bicultural?

Some people have suggested the need to talk about New Zealand as bi-national, rather than bicultural. ‘Bi-nationalism’ sees New Zealand as one country with two nations – Māori and non-Māori. This model would allow the non-Māori nation to be multicultural, and allow Māori the opportunity to pursue greater autonomy.

Political scientist Dominic O’Sullivan (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kahu) asserts that biculturalism is ‘binary thinking’ used widely in the 1980s and 1990s to secure Māori a voice in political decision-making within the framework of a treaty partnership between Māori and the Crown. He argues that Māori were the junior partner in that relationship and Māori aspirations for self-determination could not be realised within that model. He advocates a differentiated citizenship which positions Māori differently in terms of their relationship with the Crown.3

Although it is now less common for people to talk about ‘biculturalism’, ideas about the appropriate relationship between Māori and non-Māori will continue to evolve.

  1. Ranginui Walker, Ka whawhai tonu mātou: struggle without end. Rev. ed. Auckland: Penguin, 2004, p. 390. Back
  2. Quoted in Augie Fleras and Paul Spoonley, Recalling Aotearoa: indigenous politics and ethnic relations in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 221. Back
  3. Dominic O’Sullivan, ‘Postcolonialism’, in J. Hayward (ed.), New Zealand government and politics (6th edition). Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 106–113. Back
How to cite this page:

Janine Hayward, 'Biculturalism - Continuing debates', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Janine Hayward, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 10 Jan 2023 with assistance from Janine Hayward