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A breakdown of the issues at the center of Maori protests in New Zealand


In New Zealand this week, thousands of Indigenous Maori took to the streets in protest. They have been voicing their disapproval of the new conservative government's plans to review a treaty that was signed by the British colonists and Maori chiefs almost 200 years ago. The government has also pledged to close the Maori Health Authority, curb the use of Maori language in government organizations and has proposed other policy changes. New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon says the reason for all of these changes is because he claims voters want services to be based on need and not race.

Well, here to talk about why Maori people are protesting is Claire Charters, a professor of law at the University of Auckland specializing in Indigenous peoples' rights. She also sits on the New Zealand Human Rights Commission as the tribally appointed partner. Welcome.


CHANG: So I want to start with the treaty I just mentioned. It's called the Treaty of Waitangi. Can you just briefly explain what this treaty was and why Maori are upset that the government is even planning to review it?

CHARTERS: The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between Maori chiefs and the British Crown. And under it, Maori retain our sovereignty or self-determination and also the protection of our lands, territories and other resources and other things that are precious to us, including language and cultural rights. So what the government is trying to do is to reinterpret what the treaty means.

CHANG: So what are some specific policies that the new government wants to reverse? - policies that have been meant to address inequities facing Maori people.

CHARTERS: Quite worryingly, the government is proposing to abolish what is a Maori academic, I guess, quota for Maori into medical schools. So it is really worryingly, at least to me, that the government would go in and undermine and undercut university policy that is consistent with our Bill of Rights Act. Our human rights legislation has been there for some time, has not even - gone even close to addressing the inequality in the number of Maori doctors that we have compared to non-Maori doctors. So it's really worrying to me that the government is going in to legislatively override a university policy to try and get some equality and equity in our hospitals and all our medical profession.

CHANG: So the Prime Minister says that programs and services should not be based on race. Now, obviously, you and other Maori disagree with that. Can we just step back for a moment and talk about - what are the systemic inequities in New Zealand that you still see disproportionately affecting Maori people there? Like, what is the argument for preserving certain programs that are based on race?

CHARTERS: So Maori sit on the bottom of virtually every socioeconomic indicia that that we find in Aotearoa and New Zealand - so be it poverty, be it housing, be it health, be it education. Our life expectancy is much lower. Sixty-three percent of the woman's prison population is made up of Maori. So we sit at the bottom of all these indicia, socioeconomic indicia, including incarceration.

There's clearly a relationship between this and the impact of colonization. The so-called loss of land very quickly - Maori own very little of land, well under 5% in Aotearoa or New Zealand. So there's a very strong correlation between these sort of socioeconomic factors and indicia and the experience of colonization. Now, that would suggest that certainly being Maori is something that you should take into account when trying to achieve equity and equality. What the government is proposing currently is something very different, namely that those factors of being Indigenous are irrelevant. And so that's really problematic, and it's shown to be historically - not to work.

CHANG: That is Claire Charters of the University of Auckland. Thank you so much for joining us today.

CHARTERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Kathryn Fox
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.