The government created the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to hear Māori claims of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi by successive New Zealand governments. The Tribunal has been in a state of constant evolution ever since, trying to meet the changing and conflicting demands of claimants, government and public.
The Treaty of Waitangi, signed by British officials and Māori leaders in 1840, became a lightning rod for the frustration and anger of generations of Māori who felt disinherited by the process of colonisation. The Tribunal was created to report on and suggest settlements for contemporary Māori claims to the government, and to ensure that future legislation was consistent with the Treaty. Claims were relatively rare in its first decade, and most of the Tribunal’s early inquiries addressed local environmental and planning issues.
In 1985 the government extended the Tribunal’s jurisdiction to claims about any alleged breach of the Treaty since 1840. This resulted in a huge increase in the number of claims and an expansion of the Tribunal’s activities. The Tribunal concluded that governments had breached the Treaty on countless occasions since 1840, and that Pākehā New Zealand had been built on many broken promises and bad deals. These conclusions were highly controversial, and a public backlash followed. The future direction of the Tribunal, and the weight that should be placed on its findings, were frequent subjects for debate in the election campaigns of the 1990s and 2000s.
Claims continued to roll in through the 1990s, forcing the Tribunal to reassess its working methods. It decided to group claims into districts and to hear districts in succession. Dogged by limited resources and the sheer volume of work, the Tribunal was frequently criticised for the length of time it took to produce its reports. As reports got longer and longer, years could pass before they appeared.
In 1999 the government offered claimants the option of commencing settlement negotiations without having their claims reported on by the Tribunal. The popularity of this approach grew, especially after the Tribunal’s slowness became a major issue at the 2005 election. The Tribunal once again faced the challenge of staying relevant and useful, as claimants bypassed it completely or reached a settlement before its reports were complete. The government then introduced a deadline of 1 September 2008 for the lodging of historical claims.
Despite the obstacles and controversies surrounding its work, the Tribunal has produced a body of judicial findings which have made a major contribution to remedying some of the more unsettling aspects of New Zealand’s colonial legacy. By its 30th anniversary in October 2005, the Tribunal had released 96 reports ranging from brief judicial findings to multi-volume reports. The subjects covered everything from very specific local problems to the impact of a wide variety of government policies over huge geographical areas.