Today the Waitangi Tribunal may have changed everything. Or, not. The fact is, we don’t know and, in any case, we really don’t know.
The ruling related only to the Bay of Islands and the Hokianga, but it found that the chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 didn’t cede sovereignty to the British Crown. Nevertheless, at some point the Crown DID gain sovereignty. What, when and how that happened matters rather a lot, but none of that was included in the report.
If Maori really didn't cede sovereignty to the Crown in 1840, but the Crown now has it, then when and how did the Crown achieve sovereignty? No one could deny that by the mid-to-late 19th Century the Crown had sovereignty, but if that wasn’t from the Treaty, where did it come from? Conquest? Because, if it’s conquest the entire founding myth of New Zealand has been destroyed.
It must be noted that many Maori insist—and have for a long time—that Maori did not cede sovereignty through the Treaty. In that sense, nothing is new. But will Pākehā accept this newly insistent interpretation?
Personally, I don’t think that most Pākehā New Zealanders will accept or agree with this ruling. Despite what some may claim, that rejection isn’t necessarily about racism, but more often about defending what they’ve always known to be true. Sure, there will be some racists reacting, but they aren’t even remotely representative of all Pākehā, most of whom will simply struggle to understand what the ruling says, let alone what it implies.
As a relative newcomer to New Zealand, only some 19 years so far, I don’t have a dog in this show. But I do think that anyone arguing about this needs to understand how challenging this is to Pākehā New Zealanders: It amounts to up-ending their entire understanding of what New Zealand is and means, and that’s no small thing.
I don’t know what, if anything, this means for the future. Given that the National Party is leading government, I don’t expect anything will change, no matter what. That shouldn’t be a surprise. But, if we really have a mature society, we ought to be able to discuss all this—and the implications—calmly and rationally, right?
That day is not today.