Before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Māori and the largely British immigrant population were already exploring ways of living alongside each other. In many ways New Zealand society was bicultural, because both peoples were able to operate within their own cultures. Over time, both Māori and Pākehā learned from each other’s culture and adapted their own cultures as a result. Pākehā–Māori (Pākehā who lived in Māori communities and acted as intermediaries between the two cultures) were among the first truly bicultural people in the country. Some chiefs encouraged these Pākehā–Māori to marry into their families, in order to benefit from their ‘bicultural’ skills.
In 1840 New Zealand’s population was 70,000 to 90,000 Māori and only about 2,000 non-Māori, so Māori retained a great deal of their earlier authority.
However, this balance between the two cultures was not maintained in later years. Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the British established government in New Zealand. The non-Māori population grew to greatly outnumber Māori and, despite the protections promised in the treaty, governments came to regard British traditions and culture as dominant. All non-British cultures (not just Māori) were expected to be assimilated into the dominant Pākehā culture.
For a long time, therefore, New Zealand was unofficially monocultural. For example, the 1961 Hunn Report introduced a policy of moving rural Māori into cities to help them adapt to city life, where the culture was overwhelmingly Pākehā. No provision was made for protecting Māori culture.
The first Waitangi Tribunal hearing, in 1977, was held in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel in Auckland. By the 1980s hearings took place on claimants’ marae, or in other venues that better reflected Māori customs and traditions. This change of policy indicated a greater acceptance of biculturalism by official bodies.
Māori came together in the cities during the 1970s, leading to social changes that became known as the ‘Māori renaissance’. Through high-profile protests such as the 1975 Māori land march, Māori (and their supporters) made the government more aware of claims that the Crown had breached the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi. In late 1975 the government responded and established the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate claims of contemporary treaty breaches. In 1985 it extended the tribunal’s powers to also investigate historic breaches of the treaty. The tribunal’s reports introduced ideas such as ‘treaty partnership’ to New Zealand politics.
In 1980 the MP Matiu Rata left the Labour Party to form Mana Motuhake, a political party that advocated greater Māori autonomy. In 1982 Hiwi Tauroa, then race relations conciliator, released a report, Race against time, which argued that the state of race relations in New Zealand required urgent action. These developments helped to lay the foundations for increasing biculturalism.
The Māori renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s brought about important changes in the way New Zealand saw itself, and the way the public sector delivered services to New Zealanders. The public sector began to talk about bicultural New Zealand, and describe the Treaty of Waitangi as the country’s founding document. Government departments began to adopt the idea that the languages, cultures and traditions of both Pākehā and Māori should be officially recognised by the state.
In his 1992 book Becoming bicultural, educational psychologist James Ritchie described biculturalism as ‘a fact of contemporary social life so profound that everything we do, everything we are, must be considered and reconsidered in terms of it. My world is divided not just into Māori and Pākehā but into those who think biculturally and those who do not’.1 Writer and academic Ranginui Walker has said, ‘To survive in the political economy, Māori are impelled to learn and to function in two cultures. Therefore Māori are, by definition, bicultural.’2
In the late 1980s reports emerged from the public sector that broke away from the assimilation policies of the past and reflected a new, more bicultural New Zealand. Many of these reports proposed changes to government departments to make them more appropriate and effective for Māori.
Perhaps the most significant example of the bicultural vision adopted by the public sector was the report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy in 1987. The report stated that ‘the Maori dimension is basic to New Zealand society and this must have profound implications for all social policy.’3 It also included an extensive discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi and its implications and objectives for social policy. Most significantly, some chapters in the report were translated into Māori, reflecting the fact that Māori had been made an official language of New Zealand in 1987.
A 1988 government policy paper on Māori affairs, He tirohanga rangapu – partnership perspectives, called for major changes to the delivery of Māori-affairs services to give a meaningful role to Māori. The Labour government’s response, Te urupare rangapu: partnership response, instead proposed a more modest restructuring of the Department of Māori Affairs.
In 1986 Puao-te-ata-tu: daybreak provided a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. As with the other reports, its bilingual title reflected the desire to consider Māori–government relations in a new, bicultural, way. The 1990 National government continued the idea of biculturalism to some extent. Ka awatea: a new day set out the government’s blueprint for Māori development, which focused on education as the key to Māori achievement.
One effect of the state-sector reforms of the 1980s was to change the outward appearance of the sector, and the way it responded to Māori, in a more bicultural direction. As a result, by 2011 most New Zealand government departments had a Māori name. Traditional Māori ceremonies such as mihi (welcomes) and poroporoaki (farewells) were often performed at official functions, and tangi (bereavement) leave was provided. Māori words, symbols and concepts were commonplace inside and outside the government and public sector.
Although bicultural policy developed within the public sector in particular, other sections of New Zealand society also grappled with the ideas associated with biculturalism. In 1986 the bicultural commission of the Anglican Church released the report Te kaupapa tikanga rua: bi-cultural development. This recommended changing the constitution of the church to reflect and entrench partnership and biculturalism. The church adopted almost all of the commission’s recommendations, and in 2011 its structure still reflected the changes made in the 1980s.
Biculturalism has been criticised for not going far enough, by restricting more extensive forms of Māori self-determination. Some have argued that reform of existing institutions and processes is superficial, and does little to advance Māori culture and treaty rights. These people argue that true biculturalism demands the development of different and specifically Māori institutions to more meaningfully express the treaty partnership.
Human rights lawyer Moana Jackson has argued for a more substantial form of biculturalism through the establishment of a Māori justice system. Professor Whatarangi Winiata has argued for New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy to better reflect the nature of the treaty partnership. Rather than simply reforming the British-derived institution of Parliament, Winiata would prefer parallel institutions giving equal recognition to Māori traditions and culture. He proposes a ‘tikanga Pākehā’ (Pākehā tradition) House of Representatives, where Pākehā and other non-Māori cultures’ ways of doing things is reflected, and a ‘tikanga Māori’ House reflecting a Māori way of doing things. Sitting above both these houses of Parliament would be a Treaty of Waitangi House, with representatives from Māori, Pākehā and other non-Māori cultures. This model, Winiata believes, best represents the dual heritage of New Zealand, and is truly bicultural.
Biculturalism is also criticised for going too far in promoting Māori culture above the many other cultures in New Zealand. Some people do not agree that the Crown has particular obligations to Māori as the indigenous people of New Zealand and the Crown’s treaty partner.
New Zealand is home to many different peoples with different cultures, but the state officially recognises only the dominant Pākehā culture and the indigenous Māori culture. Some would prefer that New Zealand was officially a multicultural, rather than bicultural, nation. 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 or less important than other cultures and languages. They argue that the Treaty of 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 from the state.
Political scientist Richard Mulgan has commented that ‘[t]he most accurate summary of New Zealand would ... be: one nation, two peoples, many cultures … biculturalism does not deny the existence of other cultures besides Pākehā and Māori; it merely denies them and their cultures special recognition.’1 Ranginui Walker 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.’2
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.
In 1997 Race Relations Conciliator Rajen Prasad appealed for a new way to think about New Zealand which avoids 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.’3
Governments in the early 2000s have been reluctant to make strong statements about biculturalism. Political scientist Dominic O'Sullivan believes that by 2004 debates on biculturalism had been largely replaced by ideas about individualism, democracy and justice in the way governments and the public sector talk about New Zealand. But in the 21st century the idea of biculturalism was still debated, discussed and developed.
Fleras, Augie, and Paul Spoonley. Recalling Aotearoa: indigenous politics and ethnic relations in New Zealand. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Mulgan, Richard. Maori, pakeha and democracy. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1989.
O’Sullivan, Dominic. Beyond biculturalism: the politics of an indigenous minority. Wellington: Huia, 2007.
Ritchie, James. Becoming bicultural. Wellington: Huia; Daphne Brasell Associates, 1992.
Sharp, Andrew. Justice and the Māori: the philosophy and practice of Māori claims in New Zealand since the 1970s. 2nd ed. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Smits, Katherine. ‘The politics of biculturalism.’ In New Zealand government & politics, edited by Raymond Miller. 5th ed. South Melbourne; Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2010: 66–76.