In 1995, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference recognised the patience of Māori people in working to have historic injustices righted.
They acknowledged that over 150 years after the signing of the Treaty, the patience of many Māori was ‘being stretched to breaking point’.
After requiring patience on the part of the Māori people for so many generations, the rest of New Zealanders equally need patience.
It is only 20 years since the jurisdiction of the Waitangi Tribunal was extended to historic claims. Many New Zealanders can hope to see most historic claims settled within our lifetimes.
This would be a remarkable achievement, which would fulfill the promise of the Bishops Conference hope in 1995:
We hold in our hands a great treasure – the opportunity to create a society that truly honours the rights of its indigenous people.
All New Zealanders can be proud of Pakeha recognition of the need to resolve past injustices, and the willingness of Māori to negotiate realistic solutions.
Politicians of many parties have contributed to these achievements.
We remember particularly the role of Sir Doug Graham, Minister of Treaty Settlements in the National Government, in overseeing historic settlements, such as those with Tainui and Ngai Tahu.
Caritas supports action that can be taken legitimately to speed up settlements through better resourcing of the Waitangi Tribunal, which has unsuccessfully sought extra resources in the past. Bishop Peter Cullinane in 2004 said it was important not to blur issues.
It is one thing to stimulate honest, constructive debate around the real issues. It is another to appeal to the fairness of people while blurring the issues, which only leads to people talking past each other.
Among the issues which have recently become blurred is the difference between ‘claims’ and ‘settlements’.
Alarm has been expressed that there are still 1200 claims awaiting Waitangi Tribunal hearings. But usually claims are grouped in districts. The Whanganui Lands Inquiry, for example, encompasses over 50 claims.
Caritas does not support mandatory settlement deadlines or fast tracked processes. Both truth and reconciliation are required. As the Bishops Conference said:
The indigenous people of our country…deserve better than unilateral arrangements and imposed settlements for genuine, acknowledged wrongs.
The bishops have recognised the Treaty of Waitangi as ‘a covenant and a taonga tapu (a sacred treasure)’.
However, removing references to the Treaty of Waitangi in legislation will not remove the rights of indigenous people, as the Treaty did not confer these rights, but only recognised them.
Catholic social teaching upholds the ‘right of first inhabitants to land, and the social and political organisation which would allow them to preserve their cultural identity’.
As well as Catholic social teaching, the rights of indigenous people are upheld by international human rights standards, and the English common law tradition.
The basis of all our work for justice is our respect for human dignity, based on our recognition that every person is created in the image of God. Our relationships between each other must be based on respect for this dignity, and for the diversity of human creation.
Bishop Peter Cullinane said last year:
Building right relationships between Māori and Pakeha for the future cannot be achieved by denying the past, or by down-playing the role of the Treaty.
Some New Zealanders feel that the Treaty is old, and past its time. As followers of a two-thousand-year-old religious tradition, which continues to value the revelations of far older scriptures, 165 years is a drop in the ocean of history. We choose to take the time to resolve injustices now, rather than pass them on to the next generations.
It is only then that we will learn to grow together as a people. Ignoring our differences will not resolve them. There is a great wealth of wisdom in our Catholic social teachings which can guide our reflection. We urge all Catholics to become familiar with the long tradition of support for indigenous rights expressed from Pope Paul III in 1537 to the present day.
We urge all New Zealanders to become better informed about the Treaty of Waitangi, including the rights and obligations of the both Crown and Māori, and the rights of indigenous peoples under international law. We need to seek constructive dialogue rather than divisive statements from our politicians. We need continued patience on all sides.