Story: Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi – ngā mātāpono o te Tiriti o Waitangi

Page 5. Treaty principles developed by the Crown

All images & media in this story

In 1989 the fourth Labour government became the first New Zealand government to set out principles to guide its actions on matters relating to the treaty.

These principles were:

  • The government has the right to govern and make laws.
  • Iwi have the right to organise as iwi, and, under the law, to control their resources as their own.
  • All New Zealanders are equal before the law.
  • Both the government and iwi are obliged to accord each other reasonable cooperation on major issues of common concern.
  • The government is responsible for providing effective processes for the resolution of grievances in the expectation that reconciliation can occur.

No later government had defined any new treaty principles, although some (like the National government in 1991) have reflected on the 1989 principles.

Treaty help

Some Māori criticised the 1989 government treaty principles as a ‘unilateral attempt to rewrite the Treaty’. But Prime Minister David Lange defended the principles, saying that they were ‘to help the government make decisions about matters related to the Treaty.’1

Debating treaty principles

When the principles of the treaty were first mentioned in legislation in 1975, one member of Parliament predicted that they would create ‘debate, dissension and even divisiveness’ in New Zealand.2 Indeed, the principles of the treaty have been, and continue to be, the subject of debate. On one hand, some people think there should not be any references to treaty principles in legislation. In 2006 the New Zealand First party introduced the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill. The bill sought ‘to correct an anomaly that has harmed race relations in New Zealand since 1986 when the vague term “the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” was included in legislation.’ This bill was defeated and references to treaty principles remain in New Zealand law. The Waitangi Tribunal and the courts continue to define the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

On the other hand, some people believe that the idea of treaty principles does not go far enough and is an obstacle to Māori exercising tino rangatiratanga in a meaningful way. In 2018, Geoffrey Palmer and Andrew Butler proposed in their book Towards democratic renewal a new constitution for New Zealand which would move beyond treaty principles in law. The proposed constitution would include this statement (section 37): ‘the rights that persons of Māori descent enjoy … as Indigenous peoples under te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi are hereby recognised and affirmed’. 

  1. Quoted in Matthew Palmer, The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand’s law and constitution. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2008, p. 139. Back
  2. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 1975, No. 33, p. 4,345. Back
How to cite this page:

Janine Hayward, 'Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi – ngā mātāpono o te Tiriti o Waitangi - Treaty principles developed by the Crown', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Janine Hayward, published 20 Jun 2012, reviewed & revised 16 Jan 2023 with assistance from Janine Hayward