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Waitangi Tribunal

The commission for good relationships

Since 1840, laws passed by parliament and government actions have sometimes damaged Māori interests. The Treaty's promise of government protection was often not kept.

Many attempts by Māori to have their concerns addressed by the government got either no response or an inadequate one. This left many Māori with a sense of grievance.

The government recognised that reconciliation of the Crown and Māori was needed to restore good relationships. In 1975, it established the Waitangi Tribunal – a permanent commission of inquiry – to start working through Māori concerns.

Opening up history

The Tribunal was first set up to hear claims relating to Crown actions only after 1975. Then in 1985 the Tribunal's powers were extended to cover Crown acts and omissions dating back to 1840.

The Tribunal's 'inquiry' process – researching as well as hearing claims – has proved to be an enormous and specialised task. The Tribunal needs detailed information, and existing historical research is often scarce.

In June 2008 the Tribunal had a chairperson and up to sixteen members, with fifty to sixty support staff, as well as specialist contractors. Lawyers and other experts are also involved on behalf of claimants and for the Crown.

Enlarge image Veteran leader Whina Cooper and her mokopuna (grandchild)

In 1975 veteran leader Whina Cooper and her mokopuna (grandchild), Irene, started off a hīkoi (march) at Te Hapua in the Far North of the North Island. The hīkoi arrived at Parliament in time to support the passing of legislation that set up the Waitangi Tribunal. Courtesy of the New Zealand Herald

Enlarge image Tribunal members John Kneebone, Te Wharehuia Milroy, Augusta Wallace and Evelyn Stokes

Tribunal members are senior representatives of the Māori and Pākehā communities. In this Tribunal hearing on the Hauraki Claim in 2001 they are John Kneebone, Te Wharehuia Milroy, Augusta Wallace and Evelyn Stokes. Courtesy of the Waitangi Tribunal

Historical claims

The Tribunal has divided the country into thirty-seven districts. By June 2008, thirty districts had been reported on, were settled, or were under action. Only seven districts were yet to start.

The Tribunal groups together all the claims for each district - between thirty and over a hundred for each district - for joint research preperation and hearing.

This website gives more information: www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz

Enlarge image The 1975 hīkoi on Lambton Quay, Wellington

Photograph by Ray Pigney, courtesy of Fairfax Newspapers

Not one acre more

The 1975 hīkoi on Lambton Quay, Wellington. The hīkoi was a dramatic expression of Māori discontent over loss of Māori land and a determination to part with no more. A petition and a memorial of rights were presented to the Prime Minister, Bill Rowling, at Parliament.

Enlarge image Matiu Rata talks with supporters at Parliament in October 1975

Matiu Rata, MP for Northern Māori (196380) and a member of the Labour Government (197275), took the initiative to push through the legislation that set up the Tribunal. Here he talks with supporters at Parliament in October 1975. Dominion Post Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Reporting back

When a hearing is over, the Tribunal sends a report to the government and other parties, covering facts and making recommendations about redress. The Tribunal can't enforce its recommendations, and the government can accept or reject them.

If the government accepts there is a well-founded historical claim, claimants can then move on to negotiate with the Crown, through the Office of Treaty Settlements.

It's the principles that count

The Tribunal considers claims by Māori against the Crown concerning the Crown's acts or omissions that could have breached the principles of the Treaty. There are two main reasons for this:

  • The literal terms of the Treaty can't easily be applied to our society today.
  • The Tribunal has to determine the Treaty's 'meaning and effect', drawing on the Treaty in both Māori and English. Neither is a direct translation of the other.

So the principles that underlie the Treaty have become more important than its precise terms.

Enlarge image Leaders of the Fourth Labour Government that extended the Waitangi Tribunal´s powers

Leaders of the Fourth Labour Government (198490) that extended the Waitangi Tribunal's powers: Geoffrey Palmer, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General (198489), Prime Minister (1989-90); and David Lange, Prime Minister (198489). Photograph by Don Roy, Dominion Post Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Contemporary claims

The Tribunal also deals with a number of urgent, contemporary claims on matters of current government policy. These claims usually take only a few weeks, ending in a report and recommendations to government. Any response involves the government department or agency responsible for the policy. Since new contemporary issues are likely to arise, Tribunal work on such claims will continue.

Enlarge image Heni Sunderland speaks at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in Gisborne, 2002

Courtesy of the Waitangi Tribunal

Addressing concerns

Heni Sunderland speaks at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in Gisborne, 2002. Hearings are public and are often held on marae, allowing Māori the freedom to express long-held concerns in their own way. The Tribunal process gives claimants an opportunity to reach an understanding of the past, their tribal history, and how events of many decades have affected their situation.

The Tribunal's achievements

Over three decades the Waitangi Tribunal has completed many dozens of reports on both historical issues and a wide range of contemporary matters – from te reo Māori and the radio spectrum, to geothermal resources and fisheries. The government has implemented many of the recommendations contained in those reports.

E Matiu, e noho mai nā i raro i te maru o 'Ihowa o ngā Mano',
nāu rā i whakatō te putiputi o te tūmanako,
ko mātou i miria ki tōna kakara.

Matiu, now resting in the embrace of 'The Lord of Hosts',
it was you who planted the flower of hope,
and it is us who are touched by its fragrance.