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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Maria Bargh, Professor, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

Many of the speakers at Kingi Tūheitia’s Hui a Motu in Tūrangawaewae last month talked of their desire for a flourishing Aotearoa. A place where Māori knowledge and leadership is embraced and where the universal benefits of te Tiriti o Waitangi are understood.

But it is clear from our current discourse on the Treaty that we are falling short of this goal.

Hui speakers spoke of the importance of knowing New Zealand’s history. And they discussed steps already being taken by communities across the country in support of a nation of peace and respectful political relationships.

Other speakers questioned how politicians could be querying the terms of te Tiriti o Waitangi when so many discussions on the topic have already taken place. These discussions are happening in community centres, marae, universities, councils and in the courts.

But our recent research on political programmes at universities nationwide shows a lack of knowledge about how these systems have come to shape our country. It’s a gap that is fuelling the misinformation.

A gap in Treaty knowledge

A 2023 survey commissioned by the Human Rights Commission found that while 58% of New Zealanders believe they are informed about the Treaty, 32% believed they weren’t. Concerningly, 32% had not read any summary or version of the Treaty at all.

New Zealand politicians have also, at times, shown a poor understanding of the Treaty.

With the current debate over the treaty being fuelled by the Act Party’s Treaty Principles Bill, it is important to reflect on the role and responsibilities of universities as the critic, conscience and educators of society.

Read more:
Waitangi 2024: how the Treaty strengthens democracy and provides a check on unbridled power

As teachers of te Tiriti o Waitangi and Māori politics, we have found students keen to learn about, and be part of, a vibrant Aotearoa which upholds its Treaty and embraces working together to benefit us all.

But we have also found these students have little prior exposure to these topics, and have unhelpful views formed by snippets from social media.

However, there is a noticeable shift in some disciplines.

After a recent decision by the New Zealand Council of Legal Education, all university law students enrolling in a legal degree from 2025 onwards must be equipped with an understanding of tikanga Māori (incorporating practices and values from Māori knowledge) as a source of law in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This mandate follows decisions by the Supreme Court of New Zealand recognising the foundational importance of tikanga Māori in the law. The Law Commission has also produced a study paper examining tikanga in New Zealand’s legal landscape.

Politics students and the treaty

But can the same be said for students of politics?

Our research looked at how well politics programmes around Aotearoa might be equipping students for the landscape of an Aotearoa of peace and respectful political relationships.

Unfortunately, we found there is still quite some way to go.

Our review showed there continues to be very little engagement by the discipline with Māori politics. In fact, we found only around 1% of content taught in politics programmes appeared to be focused on Māori politics. And only around 1% of lecturers teaching in politics programmes were Māori.

Read more:
Who are the ‘kōhanga reo generation’ and how could they change Māori and mainstream politics?

The same result also appeared in our review of New Zealand’s Political Science journal, where we found only around 1% of the articles published could be considered kaupapa Māori (written by Māori about Māori politics).

Although there is Māori political content taught in other parts of universities, largely through Māori Studies courses, it is concerning that students studying politics in New Zealand receive very little exposure to Māori politics.

Aotearoa has a unique political experience, one founded and shaped by Māori through iwi and hapū politics, and more recently by the British Crown through imposed colonial political structures. As such, all aspects of politics in Aotearoa must be understood as we continue to work together in making inclusive political systems that benefit all.

Catching up with the rest of the country

Expanding on what is taught across the political science discipline aligns with the commitments that universities have made to being Tiriti-led educational environments.

Massey University describes itself as a “Tiriti o Waitangi-led institution”. And in 2021 the University of Canterbury created a treaty partnership office and committed to a “genuine partnership with mana whenua” and strengthening Māori leadership.

Students have come to expect a university education that upholds te Tiriti and actively promotes critical engagement with mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge).

Read more:
History and myth: why the Treaty of Waitangi remains such a ‘bloody difficult subject’

In the past two months, thousands of people from across Aotearoa have demonstrated their commitment to te Tiriti o Waitangi by supporting and attending Māori-led political events.

The Kīngitanga Hui a Motu, the yearly political debates at Ratana, and large turnouts to Waitangi day celebrations illustrate the diversity and vibrancy of Māori politics.

Iwi and hapū politics are the longest enduring political systems in Aotearoa. It is time for politics programmes in New Zealand universities to recognise this to create a more collaborative and flourishing Aotearoa.

The Conversation

Maria Bargh receives funding from the ‘Adaptive Governance and policy’, Biological Heritage, National Science Challenge.

Annie Te One does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Māori political systems are the oldest in Aotearoa – it’s time university politics courses reflected this –