Professor David V Williams from the Faculty of Law, University of Auckland, New Zealand gave the Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture on ‘The Treaty of Waitangi – the Magna Charta of New Zealand: Rhetoric or reality?’ at Massey University Albany 21 July at 7pm.
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The Treaty of Waitangi has frequently been described as the ‘Magna Charta of New Zealand’ or the ‘Maori Magna Carta.’ The first Protector of Aborigines in New Zealand, CMS missionary George Clarke, spoke of the Treaty in 1841 meetings with Maori: ‘They had, I said, in their hands the magna charta of the country, securing to them everything which would make them respected.’ When Clarke was removed from office in 1846 his final report on ‘our present relationship with the New Zealanders’ asserted that the Treaty of Waitangi ‘now forms the Magna Charta of this interesting people.’ Remarks on New Zealand by Robert FitzRoy (second Governor of New Zealand) published in London in 1846 echoed Clarke’s sentiments. Theirs was a view that was no means uncontested. A Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1844 described the Treaty of Waitangi as ‘part of a series of injudicious proceedings’ and proposed a resolution that acknowledgement ‘of a right of property on the part of the Natives of New Zealand, in all wild lands in those Islands, … was not essential to the true construction of the Treaty of Waitangi, and was an error which has been productive of very injurious consequences.’
It was the latter negative view of the Treaty that tended to prevail in the legal history of New Zealand after 1846 rather than the former. Yet, when interest in the Treaty of Waitangi as ‘a founding document’ in the constitution of the nation came to the fore in the 1980s, the association of the Treaty with Magna Charta revived too. On the sesquicentenary of the Treaty in 1990 (when Sir Paul Reeves was the Governor-General), Sir Robin Cooke (later Lord Cooke of Thorndon and a member of the House of Lords judicial committee) imagined himself in conversation with the shade of Sir William Blackstone in the Codrington Library, Oxford. The shade of Blackstone opined thus: ‘I do not doubt but that your Treaty of Waitangi has become in some sense a grand constitutional compact akin to our Magna Charta.’
The lecture will offer critical reflections on such rhetoric. I will also invite the audience to reflect on the extent (if at all) that our nation and our peoples have translated the 1990 rhetoric into substantive reality in the last 25 years.