Review: New Myths and Old Politics: The Waitangi Tribunal and the Challenge of Tradition

IMG_1629New Myths and Old Politics: The Waitangi Tribunal and the Challenge of Tradition by Tipene O’Regan.

Wellington NZ: Bridget Williams Books/BWB Texts series (Epub, Kindle, PDF), 2014. 35pp.  $4.99.  Reviewed by Bruce Harding.

ISBN 97819271311992 (EPUB) / ISBN 9781927247785 (KINDLE) / ISBN 9781927247792 (PDF).

Conceived in the heat of battle (the Waitangi Claim process for Ngai Tahu) in 1991, this important new digital e-book, comprising six chapters and an Afterword, is based on Sir Tipene’s 1991 Beaglehole Lecture. That academic occasion—when the skilful claims negotiator splendidly enunciated his iwi’s manawhenua at a New Zealand History conference—sets the mainframe for O’Regan’s very thoughtful and well-reasoned ruminations on the Treaty claims process in New Zealand as a form of decolonization.   Given Sir Tipene’s recent role as co-chair of the Constitutional Advisory Panel, the decision of Bridget Williams to re-issue this essay in an amended short book form as part of the BWB Texts series is to be welcomed. One also hopes that the digital format will help this paper to reach a younger generation of readers and citizens, for New Myths and Old Politics opens up a host of challenging reflections on the need to maintain indigenous traditions with integrity in an environment when states have chosen to treat with tribal entities to repair decades of historical grievance and cultural damage.  Indeed, this is a robust incarnation of postcolonial thinking.

The most lively portion of the monograph is contained in O’Regan’s deconstruction of 1980s New Age mystical nonsense, with two break-away tribal groupings then calling themselves “the Elders of the Ancient Nation of Waitaha” and who tried, on a base of clear self-interest, to challenge the “perfidy” (O’Regan’s word) of Ngai Tahu whanui and to reap cash rewards outside of that vital Crown-iwi engagement process. Such circus antics (recalling Alan Duff’s term “mana-munchers”) threatened to destabilize the serious and costly claims process for the entire Ngai Tahu iwi. Referencing Umberto Eco’s 2010 novel The Prague Cemetery, one is tempted to call this entire monograph “The Oracle Cemetery” in its clarion call for the retention of authentic tradition matched, where possible, with Western scholarly practice and rigour. Thus it is entirely appropriate that Sir Tipene is now Adjunct Professor of the new Ngai Tahu Research Centre at the University of Canterbury.

When one contemplates Sir Tipene’s mature public years, he seems to embody the dictum that while some people teach history, others make it. Being the complex man that he is, O’Regan has managed the astonishing feat of doing both, and this important book reflects that.

The most sober segments of this work deal vitally with the reconstitution of tribal legal identity through the formal claims settlement negotiation process in Aotearoa-New Zealand. O’Regan makes the sobering point that only Tainui and Ngai Tahu have anchored their restitution strategies within a Treaty-based (Article 2) dialogue around the vexed issues of shared sovereignty as promised in the 1840 compact (which Ngai Tahu leaders signed at various points in the South Island with Major Bunbury). Here Sir Tipene expounds the core foundation of his own principled preference for a written New Zealand constitution anchored in the Treaty of Waitangi and in the complex dialectic enacted across its first three articles. Articles One and Two interact vibrantly, to form a resolution in the citizenship guarantees for Maori and Pakeha, defined crisply in Article Three.  The whole logic of Treaty-recognized fishing, food-gathering and land rights as a reconstitution of collective legal title that was vapourized in the nineteenth century by the settler colonial state is here made searingly plain.

The re-issue of this elegant (and updated) argument is indeed timely, reminding all thoughtful citizens of Aotearoa-New Zealand of our need for a thorough-going modern constitutionalism. This is a serious and strenuous text, happily punctuated by pungent and witty “O’Reganisms” which serve to leaven the author’s important messages.