2001, A Waitangi Tribunal Odyssey: the Tribunal’s response to the ‘presentism’ critique

Grant Phillipson


In 2001, Professor WH (Bill) Oliver published the most influential critique of the Waitangi Tribunal ever written in its 37-year history. His essay, ‘The Future Behind Us: the Waitangi Tribunal’s retrospective utopia’, soon achieved the status of academic orthodoxy. It appeared in a collection edited by Andrew Sharp and Paul McHugh, who summarised it in this way:

'W.H. Oliver explores, and criticises, the “presentism” of the Waitangi Tribunal’s histories: their tendency to find the Crown guilty of not providing for Maori after 1840 what it would have been difficult or even impossible to conceive of at the time, and flatly impossible to deliver. He argues that the Tribunal’s political thought has a marked utopian element
that it projects onto the past.'

An integral component of presentism, in Oliver’s view, was ‘a
“counterfactual” history of policies and institutions which should and could have been put in place but were not’, resulting in the Tribunal’s ‘depiction of a better past that might have been’.


Waitangi Tribunal; New Zealand; Maori History

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