Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has passed away, and the overwhelming majority of people in New Zealand mourn her passing.
Not, of course, because her death was unexpected, or a tragedy in the ordinary sense of that word: at the age of 96 and increasingly suffering “mobility issues”, she had outlived the great majority of her subjects by at least a decade and was able to perform her royal duties right up to the end. Not for her, prolonged physical incapacity or mental decline. Just hours before her passing, she asked Liz Truss, the new Leader of the Conservative Party, to form a new British Government.
But mourn her passing we do because she was, for seven decades, not only the Head of State of New Zealand but the wise and mature head of the Commonwealth, that loose agglomeration of countries which at one time or another were ruled by the United Kingdom.
I had the privilege of meeting Her Majesty, albeit briefly. I had a more substantial meeting with her son, now King Charles, when he visited New Zealand in the early nineties. Contrary to his public image perhaps, I found him to be quite remarkably well-informed, or at least very well-briefed. We conducted a well-informed conversation about monetary policy when I was Governor of our central bank.
It is sad, but perhaps inevitable, that those who would divide us into those with some Maori ancestry and those without want to mark the Queen’s passing, with snide and unbalanced comments about her legacy.
Marama Davidson, the Co-Leader of the Greens, speaking in Parliament earlier in the week, couldn’t resist referring to “the role of the monarchy in oppressing the power of others, including here and countries around the world”.
Rawiri Waititi, the Co-Leader of the Maori Party, argued “we must always speak our authentic truth: the British Empire and the power of its monarchy was built of stolen whenua, stolen resources, and stolen taonga”.
The clear message is that Maori New Zealanders would have been better off had British colonists never arrived, and had Queen Victoria never agreed to the Treaty of Waitangi being signed.
And of course that has to be the most arrant nonsense. One doesn’t have to believe that everything the early colonists did was inspired by a virtuous concern for the Maori people – clearly it was not – to recognise that the arrival of British settlers in New Zealand and the framework of British law that they brought with them, were of enormous benefit to the Maori people.
Over the next few years, it is inevitable that we will discuss the role of the Crown in the future of New Zealand, but it is vital that in doing that we are honest and accurate about the benefits which our relationship with the Crown has brought.
One hundred years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, Sir Apirana Ngata, one of the greatest Maori leaders who has ever lived, and a man whose portrait I was privileged to put on the $50 bank note when I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, celebrated the Treaty in these words:
What remains of the Treaty of Waitangi? What is there in the Treaty that the Maori can today celebrate whole-heartedly with you? Let me say one thing: Clause 1 of the Treaty handed over the mana and the sovereignty of New Zealand to Queen Victoria and her descendants forever, that is the outstanding fact today. That but for the shield of the sovereignty handed over to her majesty and her descendants I doubt whether there would be a free Maori race in New Zealand today…. I doubt whether any native race has been so well treated by a European people as the Maori of New Zealand.
More than 80 years further down the track, successive New Zealand governments have recognised that there have been instances where wrongs were done; and at Hobson’s Pledge we have always supported a careful assessment of those wrongs, with compensation being paid where a reasonable case can be made that that is appropriate.
But, even as those past wrongs are acknowledged, it is imperative that we don’t accept the nonsense that the arrival of British settlers was, on balance, disadvantageous to the Maori people. British settlers brought the rule of law, the English language, the wheel, metal tools, written language, an end to slavery and cannibalism, sheep, cattle and horses, all of which were of enormous benefit to the Maori people.
We dare not allow the future of New Zealand to be adversely affected by a grossly misinformed and distorted contempt for our history. There is an opportunity now, as we reflect on the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and look forward to our next election, to be sure that we are not distracted by distortions and misrepresentations.
In 2004, as Leader of the National Party, I gave a speech to the Orewa Rotary Club which is as relevant today as it was then. You can read it here.
It was with this vision and hope for New Zealand’s future that Hobson’s Pledge was founded in 2016. With your support, we will continue to advocate for the protection of our democracy and equal rights before the law for all.