Sunday, March 31, 2024

Roger Childs: A Law unto Itself – the Waitangi Tribunal

This process (decision making by the Waitangi Tribunal) has no checks and balances, no accountability to anyone, and there is no recourse to appeal. –Piers Seed

Showing up the Tribunal for what it is

In his second history book, Christchurch writer Piers Seed provides a fascinating and highly perceptive analysis of what’s wrong with the Waitangi Tribunal process. Entitled Taonga and Contra Proferentem, the author examines how the crucial Maori word taonga has evolved from meaning “property” and all that entails, in the early 19th century. Today in making judgements on claimants’ cases, the Tribunal allows taonga to mean “anything you care to name” in the guise of the wonderfully vague word “treasure”.

Piers Seed looks at whether taonga and contra preferentem (a legal term that can mean in ambiguous contract or treaty situations, decisions should favour the party which is on the receiving end) have been used correctly and ethically. He outlines a strong case to support the proposition that many “important Tribunal decisions (have) been based on a very wobbly house of cards.”

A different kettle of fish

In his first book Seed tackled the controversial claims that women, children and older men of the south Waikato town of Rangiaowhia were slaughtered in February 1864. Using all the known eye-witness accounts, both Maori and non-Maori, he emphatically dispels the myth of atrocities being committed by General Cameron’s forces.

The book clearly demonstrated his skills in analysis and using a comprehensive range of evidence, however in Taonga and Contra Proferentem his focus is not on specific historical events, but on the process by which the Waitangi Tribunal has been making decisions resulting in hundreds of millions of tax-payers dollars being paid out to Maori groups.

By redefining the word taonga to mean “treasure” the Tribunal opened the flood gates to allow claimants to apply the word to “mauri (life force), intellectual property, navigational aids, radio spectrums, languages, ideas, thoughts, rivers or mountains, or indeed anything abstract or spiritual.”

By favouring the Maori Treaty (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) over the English language version under the legal principle of contra proferentem, the Tribunal effectively denies the Crown the right to challenge its decisions. It may not be a court of law, but often acts like one.

Taonga – a word with many meanings

The author looks in considerable detail at how the word has been translated and interpreted from 1820 to the present day. In a chapter entitled “A chronological history of taonga” Seed starts with Thomas Kendall’s Grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand and examines various dictionaries and collections of Te Reo words through to the online Ngata Dictionary of 2021.

He does point out that in various publications, notably the Maori version of The Bible, “treasure” is mentioned as a meaning for taonga, but nothing like the “anything highly prized” definition the Waitangi Tribunal has applied. In looking at New Zealand’s historical records he has this to say “ … trawling through this vast documentation we find no records of taonga, as envisaged by the Tribunal, from the time of Captain Cook to the 1980s.”

He does not examine the Articles of the two Treaties, but does observe that overall the English-language version is a short and “exceptionally clear document pitched at the best possible sweet spot for that place, that time and to that audience”.

However, the purpose of his book is to show how taonga has become “an underpinning concept of the Maori world” and how the Tribunal has favoured Te Tiriti over the English version in its judgements, according to the principle of contra proferentem.

In opening Pandora’s Box on meanings of taonga anything is possible, and Seed observes that consequently many Tribunal decisions “are … based on fantasy”.

Seed emphasizes that the Tribunal is not a Court of Law but in fact is akin to a Royal Commission. This compares with the United States and Canada where issues related to treaties with indigenous people are decided in the courts and contra preferentum is often applied to ensure that both side are given a fair go.

Highly recommended

The failings of the hugely influential Waitangi Tribunal is a topic mainstream media will not touch with a rowing oar, fearing at the very least of being called “racist”. Seed emphasizes that his approach to this subject, which affects all taxpayers, is not based on rhetoric but is methodically centred on fact and logic. The book is fluently written, laced with plenty of appropriate analogies and occasional touches of humour, and backed up with supporting footnotes and appendices.

Taonga and Contra Proferentem fills a huge gap in writing on the Treaty decision-making process, and provides comprehensive insights into an organization that the government first needs to rein in and then disband. The Waitangi Tribunal has transmogrified into a self—sustaining monolith and its staff probably feel that they have jobs for life.

(You can purchase Taonga and Contra Proferentem Thoughts on the Waitangi Tribunal Process by emailing and is listed on The price is $35 plus postage.)

Roger Childs is a retired teacher who taught History, Social Studies and Geography for 40 years. This article was first published HERE


Murray Reid said...

I will purchase "Seed's" book when I out this pen down. His treatise on Rangiaowhia is very impressive.
Both books should be on everyone's shelves.
I do however cringe whenever I see the words "English Version"
For my money Freeman should be consigned to history and Busby's document, dated 4/2/1840 should become law and replace the damaged exhibit at Te Papa.

Gaynor said...

I grasped that the word Taonga had evolved into ridiculousness when on RNZ last year an AU educationalist referred to the remedial reading programme Reading Recovery as a Taonga for NZ.

This reading programme is neither Maori in origin nor to my thinking a treasure but a curse. Designed by European Dame Marie Clay, it has caused untold harm to thousands if not millions of reading- failing children world wide because it focuses on 'guessing' words from context.

This is the technique of the Whole Language reading method which displaced now scientifically proven phonics and I believe has contributed to our very long tail of underachievement which include a disproportionate number of Maori. students.

The word Taonga I would suggest often means :'Hands off my pet ideology because it has become my god '.