Dec 10, 2010

Evaluating The Kingitanga

King Tuheitia and John Key

With the Kingitanga in the news recently a number of people have been questioning the relevance of the contemporary King movement. Questions are beginning to arise as to the practical purpose and significance of the King movement. This is especially true from the time Kingi Tuheitia took office. It is disheartening to hear questions along these lines because I think they are misguided and miss the overall aim of the Kingitanga. In my opinion the Kingitanga is still an important and enduring expression of Maori unity with deep historical meaning. It should not be forgotten that the Kingitanga is not a cheap imitation of European models but an expression of the mana, determination and unity of Maori rather than an expression of power or sovereignty. At its core the Kingitanga represents the spirit of the Maori people and the enduring struggle for mana whenua. Maori are a fiercely parochial and sometimes fragmented people who on occasion view themselves as singular rather than one piece of a whole – the Kingitanga serves as a unifying symbol to counter parochialism.

The Kingitanga continues to foster unity by honouring historical connections with many hapu (but not all unfortunately) through the poukai and koroneihana system. This continued symbolic unity is the Kingitanga greatest strength. These hapu are the ones who empower the Kingitanga and give the movement mana. As long as these hapu continue to participate in the poukai and koroneihana and honour the Kingitanga then in my opinion it is still relevant.

There are questions surrounding whether or not the Kingitanga is representative of all Maori but again this misses the point. The King movement is no longer about practical representation but symbolism. The Kingitanga is not involved in political matters or matters that require a voice on behalf of all Maori. When the King does speak he speaks on behalf of Tainui only, and in exceptional cases, where those iwi who originally constituted the Kingitanga agree.

This brings me to the question should the Kingitanga become involved in politics? Certainly the Kingitanga has already forged relationships with overseas head of states in and beyond the Pacific so is it time to enter domestic political discourse? I do not think so. The Kingitanga has always been apolitical but there is now some desire within Maoridom for the Kingitanga to engage in greater public advocacy. I believe this would undermine the strength of the Kingitanga. The Kingitanga is, and should stay, a relationship builder. Te Ata was renowned for bringing people together - connecting people with diverse opinions and getting them to talk to one another. She provided leadership not in a political sense but a human sense. A political stance would undermine the ability of the Kingitanga to build relationships with different governments who may or may not approve of the stance the Kingitanga takes on political matters. An inability to forge relationships with the Crown would be an affront to the principle of partnership and result in diminished mana. It would also not be in the interest of such a symbolic movement to become stained by political decisions and damaged by political opponents. The conflict politics breeds would also weaken the symbolic role the Kingitanga has. For example Tuheitia’s unprecedented move to sack Tania Martin has drawn wide criticism from many in the tribe who disagree with his decision and others who wish the office of the King to remain apolitical. Some Kaumatua have suggested there is a danger in the King becoming a political figure in that the office is no longer tapu – it becomes common, ordinary, noa. 

The political opinions of individual Maori are diverse – there is no single Maori view on political issues so it would be unwise for the Kingitanga to attempt to speak on behalf of all Maori. Such a move would invite quarrels and weaken the unity the Kingitanga embodies - politics will only divide. Where the Kingitanga should take the lead is on cultural issues. Unlike politics this is an area that is not divisive – Maori all agree about the revival of the culture. Facilitating progress on a cultural front will ensure the Kingitanga remains relevant entering the post treaty settlement world.

Another question regarding the Kingitanga is the reign of Tuheitia. Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu’s reign signified the renaissance and recovery of the Kingitanga and the Maori people. I think Tuheitia’s reign will signal the emergence of Maori as equal partners. But is he up to the task? He is something of an “enigma”. Little is known of the man beyond generic facts surrounding his education and so on. We glean nothing from him from his public appearances which are usually characterised by silence on his part apart from welcome or thank you. Shyness perhaps? Humility? This is certainly the view of most. In my opinion his reign has been striking for a lack of leadership. He does not appear to have the unifying skills that are a necessity for any Maori monarch. He has frustrated Te Kauhanganui, the Tainui tribal Parliament, and according to Tuku Morgan the Parliament is “dysfunctional”. If he has failed to bring together his own people how will he fare with the rest of Maoridom?   

With that been said I think his maiden speech signalled good things may come from this man unfortunately he has not managed to follow through in any great way. Undoubtedly he has attempted to modernise the Kingitanga and Tainui. For example creating the Kings Charter (with the help of professional PR advisors), choosing a non-Tainui member to represent him on the executive board and attempting to lead discussions among iwi on future issues such as constitutional reform.

Therefore, the Kingitanga serves an important purpose today as a symbol of unity and I hope more people begin to see this. Whether Tuheitia is the right Arikinui to lead this important body is an interesting question. Whatever the answer to that question I just hope the body remains apolitical – for its own sake.


  1. The Kingitanga was established to unite the people and protect the land way back in 1858. I have witnessed instead divisive tactics which have led to many young people questioning why they should support the kingitanga. The king is supposedly apolitical - he and his advisors needs to be reminded of that fact if they want to survive.

  2. "The political opinions of individual Maori are diverse – there is no single Maori view on political issues so it would be unwise for the Kingitanga to attempt to speak on behalf of all Maori. "


    One often hears criticism of Maori - mostly from Pakeha - of Maori not speaking with "one voice", and deriding the splintering of the Maori Party into the parent body and the Mana Party.

    At the same time, count the number of Pakeha parties within Parliament (and without), and the subsequent clamour of different voices. Often within Parties, as well.

    It seems to me to be a subtle form of racism, demanding that Maori speak with "one voice" - whilst Pakeha have as many differing voices as are number of Pakeha.



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