Because the Treaty of Waitangi has limited legal standing in itself, the primary means of registering and researching Treaty claims is through the Waitangi Tribunal. The primary means of settling those claims is through negotiations with the government of the day.
The Treaty of Waitangi is often considered to be the founding document for European (Pākehā) settlement in New Zealand. It guaranteed to Māori the right to keep their lands, forests, fisheries and all their treasures, but they would hand sovereignty in the English version, and governorship in the Māori version, over to the Crown and would also only be able to sell to the Crown. Initially, there was little dispute, as the settlers were able to buy land from the Māori through legal channels. However, after a while, Māori became disillusioned and less willing to sell, while the Crown came under increasing pressure from settlers wishing to buy. Consequently, government land agents were involved in a number of dubious land purchases. Agreements were negotiated with only one owner of tribally owned land and in some cases land was purchased from the wrong people altogether. Unrest and rebellion caused by these actions were met with further punitive land confiscations. Eventually this led to the New Zealand Wars, which culminated in the confiscation of a large part of the Waikato and Taranaki.
In 1975 the Treaty of Waitangi Act established the Waitangi Tribunal to hear claims of Crown violations of the Treaty of Waitangi, to address those concerns. It allowed any Māori to lodge a claim against the Crown for breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi and its principles. Originally its mandate was limited to claims about contemporary issues, that is, those that occurred after the establishment of the Tribunal. Early claims included the 'Te Reo Māori' claim . As a result of the Tribunal's report into the claim, in 1987 the government made Te Reo Māori an official language of New Zealand, and established the Maori Language Commission to foster it. The pivotal issue considered by the Tribunal was whether a language could be considered a "treasure" or "taonga", and thus protected by the Treaty.
In 1985 the Fourth Labour Government extended the Tribunal's powers to allow it to consider Crown actions dating back to 1840, including the period covered by the New Zealand Wars. The number of claims quickly rose, and during the early 1990s, the government began to negotiate settlements of historical (pre-1992) claims.
Despite the protest, three major settlements were reached during this time. The Minister of Justice and Treaty Negotiations at the time, Sir Douglas Graham, is credited with leading a largely conservative National government to make these breakthroughs.
In June 2008, the Crown and representatives from seven Maori tribes signed an agreement relating to Crown forest land that was dubbed "Treelords" by the media, because of perceived similarities to the Sealords deal of the 1990s. Like Sealords, it relates to a single issue, but covers multiple tribes. The agreement contains only financial redress, on account against comprehensive settlements to be negotiated with each tribe within the Collective. The agreement is the largest to date, by financial value, at NZ$196 million worth of forest land in total (including the value of the Affiliate Te Arawa Iwi and Hapu share). In addition, but not counted by the government as part of the redress package, the tribes will receive rentals that have accumulated on the land since 1989, valued at NZ$223 million..
As at July 2008, there have been 23 settlements (counting the above) of various sizes. Except as noted above, settlements generally include financial redress, a formal Crown apology for breaches of the Treaty, and recognition of the group's cultural associations with various sites.
|Claimant Group||Year Settled||Value of Settlement (NZ$)|
|Fisheries (known as the "Sealord" deal)||1992||170,000,000|
|Waikato - Tainui Raupatu||1995||170,000,000|
|Te Uri o Hau||2000||15,600,000|
|Ngati Awa (including ancillary claims)||2003||43,390,000|
|Ngati Tuwharetoa (Bay of Plenty)||2003||10,500,000|
|Nga Rauru Kitahi||2003||31,000,000|
|Te Arawa (Lakes)||2004||2,700,000|
|Te Arawa Affiliate Iwi and Hapu||2008||38,600,000|
|Central North Island Forests Iwi Collective (Known as the "Treelords" deal)||2008||161,000,000|
|Taranaki Whanui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika||2008||45,159,000|
However, during the 1990s there was broad agreement between major political parties that the settlement of historical claims was appropriate, within the confines of the government's policy to limit impact on private landowners and access to conservation land. Legislation enacting Treaty settlements was passed by Parliament with an overwhelming majority. On the claimants' side, support for a settlement was expressed through ratification among adult members of a tribe, in contrast with the early settlement attempts of the 1940s.
Over time, the consensus on the part of politicians has frayed. Winston Peters has critiqued the increasing number of claims registered at the Waitangi Tribunal, a result of the law which allows any Māori to lodge a claim, and suggested that a "Treaty of Waitangi Gravy Train" has formed around the claims process. The ACT party has echoed that criticism - despite stating that "claims should be promptly settled where land was unlawfully taken or improperly compensated, if we can identify the descendants of those who were wronged", they have never voted in support of Treaty settlement legislation, and coined the phrase "Treaty of Waitangi Grievance Industry", to describe the participants in the settlement process.
The Orewa Speech in 2004 saw the National Party for the first time take up the term "Treaty of Waitangi Grievance Industry". National's Māori Affairs spokeswoman Georgina Te Heuheu, who was Associate Minister to Sir Douglas Graham, was replaced in the role by Gerry Brownlee. Specific criticism that members of the National Party have made against settlements is that they are not being negotiated quickly enough, that insufficient attention is being given to ensure that claimant negotiators have the support of their people, and that settlement legislation is giving inappropriate weight to the spiritual beliefs of Māori. Following the replacement of Don Brash by John Key as leader of the National Party, Gerry Brownlee was replaced in the role of Treaty spokesperson by Chris Finlayson, a Wellington based lawyer with experience in Treaty claims.
The Māori Party and Green Party both criticise Treaty settlements on the grounds that the Crown has too much power in negotiations, that settlements negotiated at an iwi level ignore the rights of hapu, and that settlement redress is too parsimonious.