PROFILE
Volume 12 Number 5
Getting the Government to Say Sorry
by Mary Lean
01 October 1999

The Government of New Zealand has taken the unheard of step of apologizing to the Maori people--and beginning to redress their grievances. The architect of this process, Attorney General Sir Douglas Graham, spoke at the Agenda for Reconciliation conference in Caux in August. Mary Lean met him afterwards.


Like many of the Earth's indigenous peoples, Maori people in New Zealand have been crying out for justice for over a century. Unlike most others, their grievances have at last elicited reparations and an apology from their government.

Maori grievances date back to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between Queen Victoria and Maori. It was meant to lay a basis for government by consent rather than by conquest, and to protect Maori from unscrupulous landbuyers. Within the decade, however, the Crown was making sharp deals of its own. In one case it bought 3,000 acres for NZ$500--and sold just 90 of them a year later for NZ$48,000. When Maori eventually united in protest, their action was seen as rebellion and brutally crushed by the British army. Millions of acres were confiscated.

The issue is far more than an economic one, points out Sir Douglas Graham, the Cabinet Minister in charge of the New Zealand government's negotiations with Maori. Land is vitally important to Maori communities as turangawaewae (a place to stand). 'Without the strength that came from a place of their own to which they could belong, it was inevitable that there would be a loss of self-identity,' he writes in his book, Trick or Treaty?*. Government policies aimed at assimilation further destroyed Maori culture. Although a renaissance has been taking place in recent years, Maori are still heavily over-represented among the unemployed and disadvantaged, and in prisons.

Graham has seen to it that each settlement with the different Maori iwi (tribes) opens with an apology. The aim, he says, is to restore the mana (power and dignity) of Maori and to restore the honour of the Crown. 'It's an honourable thing to say what we did to you is wrong and we unreservedly apologize,' he says.

There is a practical consideration too, he continues. The Waitangi Tribunal, set up in 1975, has been processing some 700 claims. Many of these relate to vast tracts of land, confiscated over a century ago and now mostly in private hands. The NZ$1 billion 'fiscal envelope' set aside to fund compensation can only cover a fraction of what Maori can justifiably claim is owed to them. 'If you expect Maori to accept this is final, you have to acknowledge that the wrong was done and make a full and genuine apology. But even if we paid 100 per cent, we would still need to make that apology.'

This approach, on the part of a government, is 'highly unusual' and other countries are somewhat disconcerted by the predecedent, says Graham. 'Governments are not good at admitting they have been wrong. And even when they do, under duress, they never apologize.'

When Jim Bolger, then New Zealand's Prime Minister, asked him to become the Minister in charge of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations in 1991, Graham was already Minister of Justice, Minister of Cultural Affairs and Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control. (He has since laid down these responsibilities and was appointed Attorney General in 1997.)

In spite of this already daunting portfolio, Graham accepted the new post with alacrity, although, he says, 'I knew that it would be the end of my political career. It was a controversial area, fraught with difficulty, and I would somehow have to bring Maori and non-Maori with me at the same time. When that happens in politics you tend to get crushed in the middle. But I didn't go to parliament to become prime minister--I went to parliament to get things done.'

Graham's interest in Maori issues stems from the late 1970s, when, after 20 years practising law, he 'thought the country was going the wrong way and decided to throw myself into politics'. Before making himself available as a parliamentary candidate for the National Party (he was elected in 1984), he took a year off to meet the people.

'In amongst everyone else, I met a number of Maori elders and sat on the marae (tribal meeting place) in the evening and listened to what they were saying. It whetted my appetite. When I was elected to parliament, and particularly with six years in opposition, I had time to do a lot more reading and make further enquiries.' By 1990, when the National Party came to power, he was in a position to work out its policy on Maori issues which 'was almost zero prior to that'.

When Graham took on the negotiations in 1991, he had 'little understanding of how emotionally draining, or spiritually uplifting, it would be'. He and his officials had a blank page. The 700 claims were not general to all Maori (except in the case of fishing rights) but specific to individual iwi. Some of the claims conflicted with each other. Maori had carried their grievances for decades, but had little idea how they could be redressed. The country was in an economic downturn, and any money Graham spent would have to come out of his Cabinet colleagues' budgets.

After two years of deliberations and consultations on how to proceed, the government took its proposals to a series of Maori hui (gatherings). 'All the anger of 100 years poured over me and my officials. It was a sobering experience and one you just never forget.' There were tears, he says, on all sides--including among his civil servants. The temptation to give up was strong, but he held firm--in spite of some of his Cabinet colleagues' protests.

Meanwhile negotiations had begun with two of the largest iwi, Waikato Tainui in the North Island, and Ngai Tahu, whose claims covered much of the South Island. Graham describes the process as spiritual rather than commercial, although each iwi has a different approach and the Ngai Tahu were particularly 'hard-nosed'. Each meeting begins and ends with prayer, and takes place around, not across, a table. 'We tend to say that we have a problem here, how can we fix it together?'

Previous negotiations with Waikato Tainui had broken down in 1989, just before the National Party came into office. Early in the process, Graham asked Waikato's main negotiator, Sir Robert Mahuta, what had gone wrong. He replied that the parties had been talking past each other, without any meeting of minds. Then, visibly moved, he described how he went to the iwi's main marae to report on the breakdown of the talks. One old man asked whether this meant Waikato had received nothing. When Sir Robert said this was so, the old man replied, 'We must always remember that it is better to have nothing than to be nothing.' That simple statement had a powerful effect on Graham and his team.

The final settlement in 1995 returned 40,000 acres of Crown land, including the land on which the University of Waikato, the courts and high courts stand, and gave Waikato Tainui NZ$60 million to replace land which could not be returned because it lay within conservation areas. The iwi leases the university and court buildings back to the Crown. Waikato Tainui has used the income from its investments and property to fund educational grants, restore marae, develop upskilling and health programmes, and build two post-graduate colleges. Exceptionally, Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent in person to the settlement legislation, including the apology, when she visited New Zealand in November 1995.

The day in December 1994 when the Crown and Waikato Tainui signed the Heads of Agreement for the settlement was one of the great moments of Graham's life. 'We did not finish until midnight,' he says. 'It had been a long day. The TV cameras had just gone and we were sitting there exhausted, mentally and physically and spiritually. Then Sir Robert said to me, "We are going up our sacred mountain, Taupiri, to pray. We would like the Crown to come with us." And we all went up. It was fantastic.'

The Ngai Tahu Deed of Settlement--which ran to 3,000 pages--was completed in 1997. It includes provisions for the return of New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki (Mount Cook), to the iwi who will then give it to the nation seven days later.

These two major settlements--which cover about half of New Zealand's land area and include a large number of smaller claims--have set the benchmarks for future settlements. For this reason, Graham believes that the remaining 11 or 12 sets of negotiations could easily be completed in the next two to three years.

He will not be there to see them through. 'It's been a very draining ten years. It seemed better to go when people are still saying, "Why on earth are you going rather than when on earth are you going?" ' After three months at Cambridge University, he expects to 'hang up a nameplate as a consultant of some sort, and I hope I can help the Maori people'.

There are still, he concedes, 'lots of New Zealanders who think the whole thing's a nonsense'. He has made hundreds of speeches, and finds that when people are told the facts, their attitudes change. After one speech to Rotary in downtown Auckland, Graham received a letter from one of his constituents, who wrote that he had seen Graham as a traitor. 'Having listened to you this morning I have been totally converted. I will do whatever I can to help the settlement proceed.'

When the going gets tough, Graham goes back to the words scratched onto the walls of a bombed-out building during World War II: 'I believe in the sun even when it does not shine; I believe in love even when it is not seen; I believe in God even when he is not heard.' 'When I pause sometimes to walk along the beach and listen to the inner voice, I get a greater strength and I know that at the end of the day what I am trying to do is to bring justice between peoples.'

*'Trick or Treaty?' by Douglas Graham, Institute of Policy Studies, Wellington, 1997, ISBN 0-908935-24-2
Mary Lean

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