Becoming Te Tiriti-led is an obligation, not a choice

Lana Simmons-Donaldson presents the second part of her exploration of the Human Rights Commission’s journey towards being a Tiriti-based organisation.

Following on from our interview with National Iwi Chairs Forum Pou Tikanga Chair Professor Margaret Mutu in the April edition of the Public Sector Journal, in this article, Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt and Pou Ārahi Tricia Keelan share their views on the Human Rights Commission’s journey.

The Human Rights Commission began its journey six years ago. For Paul Hunt, the Human Rights Commission becoming Te Tiriti-based is a “no-brainer”. He says all government organisations are obliged to be led by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This means acknowledging tino rangatiratanga as a form of authority alongside kāwanatanga.

He says this isn’t a choice. “The case for embarking on being a Te Tiriti-based, Tiriti-led organisation is irresistibly compelling,” Hunt says. “Te Tiriti o Waitangi demands that we do it; it is a longstanding call of tangata whenua, and human rights law demands it.”

Decolonising our minds

For Hunt, the biggest barrier is in our heads. With a smile, he recites a line from Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. “‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’. That’s what we’ve got to do, meaning we have to decolonise our minds.” Hunt says this can be achieved through “critical thinking, understanding how we got to where we are, and recognising the shortcomings in our present society.”

Endorsement from the National Iwi Chairs Forum has been humbling for Hunt. “The relationship has been respectful, constructive, and promising,” he says. “Our relationship with the National Iwi Chairs Forum is important because it consists of leaders or chairs of iwi and hapū from across Aotearoa. It is a great privilege to have this growing relationship with them.”

Uncharted journey

Hunt is under no illusion that the Commission is in the early days of its journey. “This is a journey for which there is no complete map,” he says. “Inevitably there will be missteps, and that’s okay so long as there is a willingness to recognise when there’s a slip and be ready to rectify it.” He says keeping Te Tiriti, te ao Māori, and human rights clearly in mind and listening carefully will be key.

While there are many rich recommendations coming out of the Waitangi Tribunal and Matike Mai Aotearoa, Hunt says the operationalisation of these recommendations by government has been slow. There has been “a lot of talk, and thinking about Te Tiriti and article one kāwanatanga, article two tino rangatiratanga, article three around equity, and article four about the religious component.” However, he says that while “at one level, you could say there is a map, we haven’t yet nutted out all the operational and implementation details.”

Revisiting the Human Rights Commission’s structures is work that Hunt says has to be done. “We have to revisit our institutional arrangements. Some of those are dictated by the Human Rights Act, and some are not.”

Hunt suggests that teasing through what the Commission’s new institutional arrangements should look like is a challenge.

Unpacking tangata tiriti

An unexpected obstacle has been getting to grips with the term tangata tiriti and unpacking this in a way people understand and feel comfortable with. Hunt says tangata whenua and tangata tiriti need to have a respectful discussion about what tangata tiriti means. “I’m absolutely convinced that honouring Te Tiriti will benefit all people of Aotearoa. Te Tiriti is not just good for tangata whenua.”

Lack of tangata whenua representation

The lack of tangata whenua representation on the Commission’s governing board is a major barrier to progress.

While the Human Rights Act allows for five Commissioners to sit on the board, there is currently a board vacancy. Professor Hunt chairs the board but doesn’t control who sits on it. Since his appointment in January 2019, he has strongly and repeatedly advocated for the appointment of a tangata whenua representative. “I am embarrassed that New Zealand’s national human rights institution does not have a tangata whenua representative on the board. To be frank, it’s a national embarrassment and disgrace,” he says.

Since early 2019, Hunt has discussed this “serious limitation” with different ministers, most recently with Nanaia Mahuta. Hunt says he is awaiting a response from her and hopes she will be able to solve the problem.

Unanimous board support

Despite the many known and unknown challenges still to be faced, Hunt says the Commission’s four Commissioners are unanimously committed to continuing this journey. “Commissioners, management, and staff are strongly committed to this Te Tiriti and human rights enterprise. We are making progress, and we know we have got a hell of a lot to do.”

Executive level transformation leadership

Hunt emphasises that the Commission’s recent progress has depended on numerous colleagues. In particular, the Chief Executive, Rebecca Elvy, and, Pou Ārahi, Tricia Keelan (Ngāti Porou, Te Aupouri, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine).

In her first year at the Commission, Keelan’s key focus has been visioning and charting the course for transformation, strengthening Ahi Kaa (the tangata whenua rights team) within the Commission and developing relationships with the National Iwi Chairs Forum and others.

In Keelan’s view, the Commission’s independent status as a national human rights institution puts it in positive stead for this kaupapa. Leading Ahi Kaa, Keelan acknowledges that while the journey is often difficult, her gaze is firmly fixed on the benefits of a dynamic Te Tiriti-based future for all mokopuna in Aotearoa, quoting the late Dame Whina Cooper: Mā te aha hoki ngā tamariki tupu, ka pēra te āhua o Aotearoa. For how the children grow, so will be the shape of Aotearoa.

Priorities and tikanga relationships

Keelan says the Commission has a unique role to play in addressing the challenges facing Aotearoa and the world, highlighting Te Tiriti-based climate action, mokopuna ora, and constitutional transformation as pressing issues.

She says that within the 2016 Matike Mai Aotearoa report, there is a pathway. “The Commission sits within the relational sphere positioned between the tino rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga spheres. As an independent Crown Entity, we should be operating in te reo me ōna tikanga, and equally, determined, guided, and monitored by both tino rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga.” She says this includes, “our institutional arrangements, our purpose, our design, the appointment of commissioners, the strategic and annual expectations of performance, and the monitoring of performance. With the guidance of iwi and hapū in Mana Ōrite with government, we aim to provide a living demonstration of Matike Mai Aotearoa within the next five years, if not earlier.”

Awakening and nurturing mana motuhake

Keelan believes that all tangata whenua carry a spark of mana motuhake within them and wants to see greater support for iwi, hapū, and whānau in their kaupapa to awaken and nurture that spark. “One spark alone is one thing, but when those individual sparks join together and become connected in kotahitanga, then we will see the truth of our positive potential in mana motuhake.”

She says, “We have an opportunity to re-imagine Te Tiriti-based futures for Aotearoa. I feel a growing societal acceptance that honour, truth, and reconciliation is absolutely necessary for wellbeing.”

Keelan is encouraged by recent government movements concerning the establishment of a Māori health authority. “Our people have been waiting; they have waited for nearly two centuries for honourable kāwanatanga. The Māori health authority and Tiriti-based health system, if done right, represent an unprecedented step forward for tino rangatiratanga and the wellbeing of all people,” she says.

“I’m heartened by the appointment of Emeritus Professor Tā Mason Durie and assurances that iwi Māori will be intimately involved in the system’s decision making. Yesterday I was reminded in a kōrero with my dad, Wikepa Keelan, a well-known Māori health leader, that  while the politics decides the system, it will be our integrity as tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, our ngākau (hearts), our minds, hands, and feet that will either disable or enable Te Tiriti, tino rangatiratanga, equity improvement, and flourishing whānau through these reforms.”

Likewise, Keelan believes that the Commission could become “a beacon for others to see what a Tiriti-based organisation can be and how it can effectively function in te ao hurihuri (the modern world)”.

She says of the future, “If we do our part well, people can look to the Commission’s transformation and be inspired to make changes themselves to uphold Te Tiriti. This should help advance tino rangatiratanga and also support more decisive national action to address critical issues like climate change and mokopuna wellbeing.”

Advice to others

Paul Hunt’s advice to other entities looking at adopting a Te Tiriti-based approach is to be:

  • humble
  • patient
  • brave
  • prepared to listen carefully.

Keelan agrees, adding that the journey requires authentic Tiriti o Waitangi relationships with iwi and hapū. She also recommends tangata whenua leadership at every level of organisations and to re-imagine Te Tiriti-based futures. “Not as a mere adjustment of the distorted relationships today, but fully re-imagined as if Te Tiriti had been honoured from the beginning and aiming to un-disrupt tino rangatiratanga today.”