A primer on the Colourblind New Zealand campaign thesis

A lot of people are finding my blog because they are searching for information on John Ansell’s “Colourblind New Zealand” and “Treatygate” campaign and I thought it might be useful to give such (potentially new) readers a bit of a primer on what Ansell’s movement is and some reasons as to we should not support it.

People who are sympathetic to Ansell’s arguments might be sympathetic because they believe that Māori have access to more power/are more privilege than other New Zealanders (which is the basis for his “Colourblind New Zealand” thesis) or because they think the Treaty settlement system is a rort (which is the basis for his “Treatygate” thesis), or they might believe both sets of claims. I think both theses can be shown to be bad arguments and the purpose of this first post is to provide reasons as to why the “equality for all under the law, regardless of colour” argument Ansell purports to run as the basis of his Colourblind New Zealand campaign is based upon a misunderstanding of our current cultural milieu.

N.B.: Ansell is talking about changing the title of his campaign away from the loaded “Colourblind” term, so contents of this post might change in the near future.

What is “Colourblind New Zealand?”

“Colourblind New Zealand” is a campaign based upon the premise of equality for all under the law, regardless of skin colour.

Why is “Colourblind New Zealand” a bad idea?

New Zealand (also known as “Aotearoa” and “Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu”1) is a country that was first settled by the Māori some eight hundred to a thousand years ago. Europeans (or “Pākehā”) arrived some two hundred years ago and began a process known as “colonisation,” whereby, despite the existence of an indigenous or first people, the (predominantly) English newcomers decided to settle in (what was to them) a newly discovered land. A treaty (Te Tiriti O Waitangi, of which the Treaty of Waitangi is the English translation thereof) was signed between Māori iwi2 and the British Crown to provide for governance of the new settlers and, for a time, things seemed peaceful. However, soon many more English settlers began to arrive and the fledgling Colonial government began seizing land from Māori (in contravention of the treaty), leading to the Land Wars. Many Māori were dispossessed from their ancestral land holdings and marginalised in their own country.

This process has lead to systemic and institutionalised problems for Māori. Economically, Māori, denied use of their own land, have been pushed into the poorer areas of the country. Culturally, up until the last two decades, Māori culture was looked down upon and hardly ever celebrated (arguably, aspects of this denigration are still prevalent and much contemporary celebration of Māoridom is tokenistic). Both of these factors (which fall under the rubic of socio-economics) have contributed to a poor state of affairs for Māori. Māori feature heavily in crime statistics, have a lower life expectancy and are generally poorer, financially to Pākehā, and so forth.

John Ansell’s Colourblind New Zealand campaign does not recognise this state of affairs and, instead, paints a false picture of Māori privilege. He and his supporters present two, related reasons for thinking that Māori are currently over-privileged in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu.

    1. Māori are treated as being more important than “normal New Zealanders/Kiwis” and

    2. The system of Treaty settlements, started in the 1980s, disadvantages Pākehā.

The first rationale, that Māori are somehow treated as first class citizens compared to second-class Pākehā and Tau Iwi (New Zealand citizens who are not descended from or related to the Colonials), is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the renaissance of Māori culture and Māori identity in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu.

Ansell and his allies seem to object to the following kinds of things: te reo Māori (the Māori language) being taught in schools, powhiri (Māori ceremonial greetings) at public ceremonies, the existence of Māori electorates, the ability to approach the Waitangi Tribunal to make land claims and the like. These things, amongst many others, provide Māori with more rights and privileges than non-Māori, Ansell and his allies argue. However, it is not at all clear that just because, say, Māori can choose to be on a different electoral role to Pākehā and Tau Iwi and te reo Māori being taught at schools (with some talk of it being compulsory, alongside English), that Māori are somehow both better off and more privileged than other members of New Zealand society. It is quite possible to believe the former claim “Māori are somehow both better off” (which is a relative claim; “better off they they were previously” rather than necessarily “better off than some other group”) without necessarily believing the latter claim that Māori are more privileged than anyone else in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu.

Several aspects of contemporary New Zealand society only make sense if you understand their historical context. Ansell likes to make out that, because of the Māori Roll, Māori are, in some sense, politically more privileged than non-Māori. Now, it is true that Māori have the option of either being on the General Electoral Roll or the Māori Electoral Roll (but not both), whilst Pākehā and Tau Iwi can only enrol generally. This looks odd, because it seems to give Māori a strategic other people do not have, but the context of why Māori have this option shows that this is not quite the privilege it appears to be. Until the late 1970s (this link gives a useful backgrounder to the Māori Roll and its history), if you identified as Māori, you could only enrol, as an elector, via the Māori Roll, and the number of Māori seats was fixed at four no matter the proportion of Māori to non-Māori in the country. Historically, Māori were disadvantaged by the existence of the Māori Seats due to a lack of proportionality under the first-past-the-post voting system New Zealand used. Under the mixed-member proportionality system we now use, Māori can choose to enrol via the General or Māori Roll and have both an electorate vote and a party vote. Whilst this is some debate as to the utility of the Māori electorates under a MMP system, both major political parties agree that the move to abolish the Māori electorates should come from within Māoridom as despite the historical injustice these seats caused, they are still valued by Māori (and, arguably, they ensure adequate Māori representation in the New Zealand Parliament).

Even without this piece of context, it still isn’t clear that Māori have any more political power or representation in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu as Māori can be enrolled either via the Māori Roll or via the General Roll but not both. Māori, like non-Māori, get two votes (one electoral vote, one party vote). Māori can choose to be represented either in a general electorate or in a Māori electorate, but by choosing to be in one electorate they opt out of being represented in another. It is not clear what specific privilege this gives Māori but Ansell and his allies either use the publics lack of considered knowledge about their own electoral system, it seems, to create a false impression that Māori have more political powers than non-Māori or Ansell and his allies are as equally ill-informed as their fellow citizens about how the Māori electorates actually work.

Similar arguments can be made about the role of powhiri at public celebrations and the role of te reo Māori in public life: historically Māori culture was downplayed or removed from public life, in breach of the Treaty, and thus the reinstatement of these things is not a heavy-handed attempt to promote Māori above other peoples in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu but, rather, a restoring of the balance and an acknowledgement that Māori are equal partners in New Zealand society and their culture is en par with the introduced English way of doing things.

This leads into the second rationale used to claim Māori have more privilege in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu, the Treaty settlement process.

Because the New Zealand Government in the 1980s decided to start a process of restitution between Crown and Māori, based upon a recognition of long-standing and continuing treaty breaches, Māori, and Māoridom in general, have had access to the Waitangi Tribunal and many (but not all) iwi have had significant settlements/redress which include both money, the return of land and the restoration of some customary rights.

On the face of it, the treaty settlements look to be large transfers of wealth and land to many Māori iwi. However, these settlements, whilst significant in the sense that they are an acknowledgement by the Crown that treaty breaches occurred, they are not substantial settlements, in the sense that these settlements amount, in most cases, to less than one percent of the actual worth of the land that was seized from Māori by the Crown and often these settlements have restrictions on how the money (and land) can be used and are parcelled out over long periods of time.

The Colourblind New Zealand campaign, then, paints such restitution as privileging Māori when, in fact, the Treaty settlements are merely a way of restoring the balance between the two Treaty partners, Māori and the Crown. The Treaty settlements return to Māori what was illegally taken off of them and restore rights that were guaranteed under the Treaty but, on the part of the Crown, taken away or severely curtailed.

What Ansell and his allies either do not understand (or possibly are trying to create confusion over) is that Māori and Māoridom being better off does not entail that Māori have more privilege that other New Zealanders (a point I will come back to in my next post on this subject). They confuse one sense of “significant” with another, the substantive, and assume the latter meaning when, really, the significance of the Treaty settlement process to Māori is the acknowledgement of past wrongs and Treaty breaches rather than (as Ansell would have the process characterised as being) a money grabbing exercise.

The central tenet behind the Colourblind New Zealand campaign is Māori are treated unequally in New Zealand and that this is unfair. The perverse part of this is that Ansell is almost right: Māori are treated unequally in Aotearoa me Te Wai Pounamu but it is not that Māori have more privilege. Rather, historically, they have been a marginalised people in their own land. Recent developments in New Zealand has seen gains for Māori, but Ansell’s Colourblind New Zealand campaign wants to wash away these positive developments and, rather, return us back to the mid-Twentieth Century, where Māori were a dispossessed people struggling for recognition.

Pākehā are not disadvantaged by the Treaty settlement process. Arguably, the Treaty settlement process is, at worst, entirely neutral with respect to Pākehā and Tau Iwi. At best, because the Treaty settlement process restores much needed equity between marginalised Māori and other New Zealanders, the Treaty process is a win-win scenario3. A Colourblind New Zealand is a New Zealand in which we would ignore the process of restitution. That is not equality but rather the bedding in of historical inequality.

In the next post I will talk specifically about the Treatygate thesis and why it is not just a conspiracy theory but also an example of an unwarranted conspiracy theory.


  1. The te reo Māori names for the North and South Islands of New Zealand are the subject of some contemporary debate. Whilst in recent history the name “Aotearoa” has been taken as being synonymous with both islands, there is now a growing movement to refer to the South Island by the name given to it by local iwi (tribes), which is “Te Wai Pounamu” and go back to the older meaning of “Aotearoa,” which refers solely to the North Island of New Zealand. Organisations like “Nga Maia O Aotearoa Me Te Wai Pounamu” and the the Anglican Church of New Zealand (with the Bishopric which covers the South Island and the lower North Island called “Te Pīhopatanga o Aotearoa o Te Waipounamu”) are two examples of the resurgence of identifying the South Island by its local name.
  2. Iwi, or tribe, is a collection of hapū, or sub-tribes, which are in turn a collection of whānau, or extended family groups. Iwi are a macro political group based on kinship.
  3. The truth is that the Treaty process is probably somewhere in the middle, in that as Treaty settlements only return a small proportion of the land and wealth that has been taken off of Māori, many Pākehā and Tau Iwi will continue to have substantial advantage over Māori and will continue to profit from historical land seizures and the removal of customary rights.