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Te Tiriti and Systemic Inequities in Aotearoa: Why the Kōrero Matter

Waitangi Day and the ‘critical’ kōrero about Te Tiriti remind us how unevenly the weight of that agreement is held.

For now, politicians scramble and react to demanded positions on climate change (the need for that position has been here a long time) but as soon as the critical mass of voters forget what happens when we choose business over climate leadership, the kōrero about Te Tiriti and Co-Governance will start again. Politicians will try and isolate the conversation to the sharpest points pricking the ears of the voters they want today, instead of acknowledging the system-level context and thinking about tomorrow. You can’t address system issues by skipping past the root cause. That’s why Te Tiriti gets pulled into these kōrero:

“They’re stealing the water! (In our care we let 60% of rivers pollute to the point of unswimmable, the current system doesn’t do well).”

– Fear

“Now they get preferential treatment in the health system?! (Where we let them die 7 years earlier from things we can mostly prevent, the current system doesn’t keep Māori well).”

– Uninformed privilege

“More treaty handouts! More pandering to Māori! (The Crown has returned a fraction of the land and homes it confiscated from Māori, it’s hard to be well when your home has been pulled out from under you).”

– Ignorance

“They’re ramming Māori language down our throats! (After the governing system tried to cut out the voicebox and identity of Māori entirely, people need a sense of self to be well).”

– Fragility

Most of those kōrero lack the bracketed context of the system-level outcomes and legacies of colonisation. They lack it because the people driving the conversation haven’t had to live within or underneath those outcomes, and they weren’t taught them at school. So they can ignore them without impact. And I’m not just talking about Pākehā, not all Māori have experienced those outcomes first-hand or can see them occurring to others. That’s the reality of system-level impacts, they can be hard to see from an individual’s whare.  

Most Maori grew up dependent, in some shape or form, on the system and governance Te Tiriti was written to guide. The same system that non-Maori depend on, but there’s a big difference in the outcomes it produces. A system is what a system does – not what we hope it achieves. Our health care system, our political system, our education system, and our justice system, all deliver very different outcomes for Māori and non-Māori. We all knock on the same doors but we get treated differently when they open. Those are the systems Te Tiriti was meant to help guide.

I’ve held wānanga and watched peoples’ backs straighten at the words “systemic racism”. Let’s make it easy and talk about how the system favours Pākehā instead.

In nearly all health indicators, Māori experience the worst outcomes, often double the mortality rate of non-Māori. In the same system, we’re often twice as likely to die. Our tamariki are 1.5 times more likely to die. Māori have on average 7 years less life. If you personally experience those outcomes, carry the impact through individuals you love, or see them at a population level, you’re going to feel differently about the system to someone who hasn’t. It’s hard not to get upset when you’re talking about the time you or your loved ones get to spend on earth. And I know, those health system inequities are hard for people to view objectively because across the world, health systems are stuffed (not the word I first wrote). The western model of medicine just can’t keep up with the increasing rates of preventable disease. There aren’t enough doctors in the world for how quickly we (society) are making ourselves sick with unhealthy kai, lifestyles, etc. Again, population level inequities can be hard to see from an individual’s whare. But when delivering the basic expectation of staying alive and well, the health system favours Pākehā over Māori. 

What about education? Any favouring there? Aotearoa is 33rd out of 38 in the OECD for educational inequality. Only 5 countries are worse than us! In 2021, 58% of Māori students achieved NCEA, 74% of Pākehā did. Today, our schooling system favours Pākehā over Māori. Even while educational achievement lifts in all groups, the inequities remain the same. So the system continues to favour non-Māori, even as it tries to improve as a whole.

Māori earn significantly less than the average for Aotearoa at all ages. The income gap for Māori is $2.6 billion per year. That’s how much less than the average income of Aotearoa the Māori population earns each year. 

Māori are 15% of the population, but 52% of the people in jail and it’s impossible to separate those three systems from the justice system. But the justice system itself favours non-Māori. When they have the same backgrounds, across all crime types, Māori are less likely to be allowed to apply for home detention, less likely to be granted home detention, and more likely to receive a prison sentence. The justice system favours non-Māori over Māori. 

Is a system is what it does. And our systems favour non-Māori.

The frames of those systems were designed and hammered into place at the same time land survey pegs were used to slice up the homes and food-gathering spaces of the people who lived here. 

The leaders who designed and embedded them were also telling my Great Great Grandfather ”the Treaty is a simple nullity” and refusing to return the land gifted by my iwi for the building of a school (no school was ever built so my iwi wanted it back). Those leaders were confiscating Māori land if the people who lived there were deemed to be ‘in rebellion’. Conveniently for the colony, attempts from Māori to stop their land being confiscated were also classified as rebellion. They were telling Māori boys and girls they would make good labourers and mothers, then beating them for speaking the only language they knew. In their words, they were “smoothing the pillow of a dying race.”

That’s the system-level context. 

Over the next 50 years of Aotearoa being governed, we’ll have 16 elections. 16 variations of a political party leading the country. They’ll spend about two years trying to deliver something they promised during elections, and a year figuring out what they should promise in order to get elected again. When I talk about Te Tiriti, I’m talking about the only over-arching assurance I have that each of those 16 party-of-the-moments will address those systems to fix the inequities we endure. The last 50 years or 16-ish election cycles haven’t given me any reason to believe they’ll do so without the treaty. Hope isn’t a strategy. A system is what a system does. Ours favours non-Māori. Without Te Tiriti, what reason do I have to believe that those 16 variations of government won’t make that even worse for my descendants?

When we have kōrero about Te Tiriti, maybe we’re talking about different things. I’m not discussing 180 year old history. I’m talking about the accountability of our systems today and tomorrow. Te Tiriti is the only promise I’ve seen to let my grandchildren live as long as their neighbours, regardless of who gets voted in. To let them enjoy a life where they can be themselves, on safe, protected land. Where the damage done in my grandparent’s generation is actively addressed and reversed. That’s the weight it holds for me. Maybe we could try carrying it together?

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