Is a New Zealand Tribunal Giving the Public a Fictional History?

Roundup: Talking About History

Diana McCurdy, in the New Zealand Herald (July 10, 2004):

Every week, 19 researchers and historians at the Waitangi Tribunal painstakingly unearth new information about New Zealand's disappearing past.

As they investigate Maori claims against the Crown, the researchers document aspects of history never before recorded on paper.

In an improbable twist, the tribunal - one of New Zealand's more controversial institutions - has become a nursery for the rewriting of New Zealand's history.

It seems a laudable enterprise. But questions are emerging about the academic validity of the history the tribunal is producing.

In a new book, The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History, Victoria University historian Dr Giselle Byrnes lays damning charges against the tribunal, describing its attempts to write history as a "noble, but ultimately flawed experiment".

The tribunal, she says, is not writing "objective history". Rather, the reports it produces are deeply political and overwhelmingly focused on the present. It commits the ultimate faux pas of judging the past by the standards of the present.

"As an historian, I believe history is inherently political, but the tribunal does not acknowledge that it has a philosophy or even that it is writing history, instead repeatedly saying it is simply issuing a report as a Commission of Inquiry."

In some cases, the political bent of the tribunal is strongly evident. In its 1996 Taranaki report, for example, the tribunal openly responds to the Government's fiscal-envelope policy of the previous year.

"It was clearly saying in that report ... that this claim is just going to blow that kind of thinking apart. It really tried to challenge that mentality that there should be a cap on treaty settlements."

Tribunal history also has a strong Maori bias, Dr Byrnes says. Maori characters and stories are given much more emphasis and weight than Pakeha characters and stories. "The reports increasingly champion or advocate the Maori cause."

This is not the first time an historian has questioned the academic integrity of the history produced by the Waitangi Tribunal. Other historians - including Keith Sorrenson, Michael Belgrave and Bill Oliver - have raised similar concerns.

Other academics are also concerned, but reluctant to say anything publicly, Dr Byrnes says.

"I know that many historians have felt some kind of disquiet about the sort of history the tribunal has been producing over the past few years. They haven't spoken out about it because most historians have liberal political leanings and they don't want to be seen as undermining or criticising the whole process."...

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