Waitangi Tribunal: All eyes on government review amid tense stand-off


New Zealand’s Minister for Children Karen Chhour ( Facebook Photo)

Venu Menon
Wellington, May 18,2024

By tabling a Bill to repeal Treaty obligations from the Oranga Tamariki Act in Parliament earlier this week, the coalition government has sapped the urgency of the Waitangi Tribunal’s summons to Children’s Minister Karen Chhour to appear before it.

The minister had defied the Tribunal’s summons to clarify in person her stand on the repeal of Section 7AA from the Oranga Tamariki Act, buoyed by a ruling of the Wellington High Court. That ruling was subsequently overturned by the Court of Appeal.

But the government pressed ahead with the repeal legislation.

The text of the Oranga Tamariki Act, sought to be excised by the government, reads: “Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act is a mechanism to give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the establishment of partnerships between Oranga Tamariki and Iwi/Māori organisations. These partnerships have been vital in addressing the unique needs of tamariki Māori and ensuring culturally responsive care and protection.”

The government argued that Section 7AA “allows the treatment of children and young people as an identity group first, and a person second, [creating] a divisive system that has had a negative impact on caregivers.”

Predictably, the move has incensed Maori leaders and Te Pati Maori MPs critical of the government’s handling of Maori issues.

Since its advent to power in November 2023, the three-party coalition of National, New Zealand First and ACT has announced policies perceived to be “anti-Maori.”

These policies, which include ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill, the disestablishment of the Maori Health Authority, paring down the use of te reo Maori, bringing back referendums in Maori wards, and the repeal of smokefree legislation, have prompted urgent claims before the Waitangi Tribunal.

The summons to Children’s Minister Chhour to appear before the Tribunal on the planned repeal of Treaty obligations from the Oranga Tamariki Act came as an urgent inquiry amid a swell of similar investigations.

But the Tribunal’s summons to the minister, which lacked the weight of precedence, ricocheted on itself when questions arose about whether it had exceeded its brief as a commission of inquiry.

The government’s move to table the Bill to repeal Section 7AA of the Oranga Tamariki Act added another layer of uncertainty. It rendered Children’s Minister Chhour’s non-compliance with the Tribunal’s summons a fait accompli.

Unsurprisingly, ACT Leader David Seymour has characterised the Waitangi Tribunal as having gone “well beyond its brief” and being prone to activism.

Seymour sees himself as being within his grounds to seize on the Tribunal’s ‘overreach’ of summoning a Minster of the Crown and to use that to call attention to the coalition agreement between NZ First and National. That agreement seeks to “amend the Waitangi Tribunal legislation to refocus the scope, purpose and nature of its inquiries back to the original intent of that legislation.”

The Waitangi Tribunal faces an existential crisis as the coalition government prepares to undertake a review of its role.

Set up under the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975, the Tribunal was meant to safeguard Maori rights, and inquire into Crown breaches of those rights, enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi. Its decisions are non-binding.

Over the years, the Waitangi Tribunal has been instrumental in settling historical claims brought before it, some dating back to the signing of the Treaty in 1840.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

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