In 1989 the fourth Labour government became the first New Zealand government to set out principles to guide its actions on matters relating to the treaty.
These principles were:
- the government has the right to govern and make laws
- iwi have the right to organise as iwi, and, under the law, to control their resources as their own
- all New Zealanders are equal before the law
- both the government and iwi are obliged to accord each other reasonable cooperation on major issues of common concern
- the government is responsible for providing effective processes for the resolution of grievances in the expectation that reconciliation can occur.
By 2011 no later government had defined any new treaty principles, although some (like the National government in 1991) have reflected on the 1989 principles.
Some Māori criticised the 1989 government treaty principles as a ‘unilateral attempt to rewrite the Treaty’. But Prime Minister David Lange defended the principles, saying that they were ‘to help the government make decisions about matters related to the Treaty.’1
Debating treaty principles
When the principles of the treaty were first included in legislation in 1975, one member of Parliament predicted that they would create ‘debate, dissention and even divisiveness’ in New Zealand.2 Indeed, the principles of the treaty have been the subject of debate. In 2006 the New Zealand First party introduced the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill 2006. The bill sought ‘to correct an anomaly that has harmed race relations in New Zealand since 1986 when the vague term “the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi” was included in legislation.’ This bill was defeated and references to the treaty principles remained in New Zealand law. The Waitangi Tribunal and courts continue to define the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.