The Waitangi Tribunal’s main roles are to inquire into claims by Māori of Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi between Māori and the Crown (represented by the New Zealand government), and make recommendations for settling them. The tribunal has no close parallels anywhere in the world.
The Waitangi Tribunal was set up at a time of growing protest over the current and historical treatment of Māori in society. From the late 1960s a ‘Māori renaissance’ movement called for greater legal and social equality with non-Māori, the revival of Māori culture (including the Māori language) and a halt to sales of remaining Māori land. At first many protesters denounced the Treaty of Waitangi as a ‘fraud’, but later they called on the Crown to honour its obligations under the treaty. This protest movement culminated in the 1975 Māori land march to Parliament.
For more than a century Māori had tried to resolve grievances with the Crown through petitions, court cases and by other legal means, but without significant success. By 1975 some Māori were turning to more extreme actions such as land occupations. Matiu Rata, the Labour government’s minister of Māori affairs, urged his cabinet colleagues to address Māori grievances by setting up a special tribunal. This would provide a legal process for investigating Māori claims of prejudice due to Crown breaches of the treaty and, it was hoped, help to resolve outstanding issues between Māori and Pākehā.
Tribunal set up
The government was advised that there was a lack of historical evidence to hear early Māori grievances dating back to the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Rata therefore aimed to compromise by giving a new Waitangi Tribunal the power to hear claims dating from 1900. His colleagues rejected that proposal and the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 set up the Waitangi Tribunal with the power to investigate claimed breaches of the treaty from 10 October 1975, the date the act was passed. The act also made the tribunal the only official body with the authority to determine the meaning and effect of the Treaty of Waitangi, taking into account both its English and Māori versions. The opposition National Party did not oppose the act and one of its MPs commented that ‘the tribunal’s responsibilities appear minimal’.1
The Waitangi Tribunal began as a very small organisation with a modest role. Political scientist Andrew Sharp believes, ‘It was instituted in 1975 as a way of avoiding rather than confronting the continued Maori demand that the Treaty should be “ratified”’.2 Historian Bill Oliver adds that the tribunal ‘was not expected to hear many claims, to meet often or to cost much.’3
First tribunal claim
The original Waitangi Tribunal comprised the Chief Judge of the Māori Land Court (Kenneth Gillanders-Scott), an appointee of the minister of Māori affairs (Graham Latimer) and an appointee of the minister of justice (Lawrence Southwick QC). The first claim heard by the tribunal was lodged by Joe Hawke of Ngāti Whātua and concerned his rights to tribal land at Ōrākei, Auckland. In 1977 the tribunal rejected Hawke’s arguments.
For its first few years the Waitangi Tribunal made little impact on New Zealand life. It could only investigate present-day claims, yet most Māori land alienations and other grievances had occurred much earlier, mainly in the 19th century. Further, it could only make recommendations to the government on its findings and had no power to enforce them. Many Māori therefore regarded the tribunal as a token gesture to appease the protest movement, a way of avoiding Māori demands.