Christchurch & Kaikoura: why have the fates of the indigenous people ended up so different in Australia and New Zealand?

13th June, 2017 – 17th June, 2017

“New Zealand is not a small country but a large village.” Peter Jackson

So (rather obviously) upon our return to the UK, my blog has been neglected while I have been caught up in the whirlwind of finding a new job, new house, moving to a new city and wedding planning! This was a post I wrote before we left. WARNING – it is 100% an indulgence of my history background and will most probably bore most people to death. But hey ho. I found it a fascinating topic to research!

We left Fiji at 9:30am, and less than 5 hours later we arrived in New Zealand. They may be in the time zone, but that is where the similarities end. My first reaction was “IT IS SO COLD”. Within the space of 4.5 hours we had flown from tropical, humid paradise of 30 degrees into the beginning of winter, with highs of 8 degrees. This was a pretty intense change as you could imagine and I have been struggling with the temperature since we arrived! As Chris likes to tell people, “Beth is emotionally cold-blooded and her mood is exactly related to her temperature.”

We rented our Jucy car, including chains for our wheels for when we drive to the ski slopes later in the month, and headed into Christchurch for our first night in New Zealand. The following day we visited the Canterbury museum and it was here that we received our first confirmation that the New Zealand relationship with the Maori people and their history was much healthier than the Australian relationship with the Aboriginal people. I don’t wish to be seen to be speaking on behalf of all of the citizens of each country while I talk about the indigenous affairs in these two countries, and I am sure that spectrums of celebration, tolerance, prejudice and discrimination exist in both countries. What I am keen to explore, however, is the relationships as portrayed by the government funded tourist exhibitions such as the museums and general heritage displays and literature.

The Canterbury museum is absolutely colossal, with huge ranging displays: from in depth discussions of the original Maori ways of life, to a whole room dedicated to “the Paua house”. This is a re-creation of Fred and Myrtle’s house which they decorated with Paua shells, and which became a famous south island tourist attraction. The exhibit is both endearingly quirky, and just point blank odd! (If you are interested in learning more)


However, despite delights such as the Paua House, what Chris and I were most impressed by was the significance placed on Maori history, the depth of knowledge and the respect given to the indigenous people of New Zealand. This became a common theme of the next few days, as tour guides welcomed us in both English and Maori, signs used both English and Maori (similar to the signs you find in Wales), and tourist stops along our road trip advertised things such as Maori cave drawings. The contrast to Australia was striking and it made us wonder how it was that two countries, which were colonised by European settlers around similar times, could have diverged so significantly in terms of their indigenous affairs.

This question is obviously highly complex and whole history modules, books and careers could be dedicated to this question; I therefore only hope to discover and write about some of the theories that have been posed as answers. One of the most interesting things I found out while researching for this post was that the differences in treatment of the Maori and Aboriginal People was investigated and discussed very early on in settlement and it was the reason they did not join together in a Union. For example, Captain William Russell, New Zealand’s Colonial Secretary argued at the 1890 Australasian Federation Conference that one reason New Zealand would not federate with the Australian colonies was because it would adversely affect New Zealand’s own race relations. This leads me onto some of the different governing decisions that New Zealand introduced:


Political Representation
Economic Independence


In 1867 the Native Affairs Minister Donald McLean introduced the Maori Representation Act which gave the Maori four seats in parliament, which only the Maori could vote for. The roles of these Maori MPs in cabinet positions contributed to a better indigenous relationship because Maori representation was involved in decision making. These MPs also acted as defenders on Maori customs and were responsible for championing the rights of the Maori tribes. Their influence was significant in improving conditions for the Maoris, for example improving living conditions by providing better health and hygiene facilities.

This has continued and the government is still actively enforcing representation. For example, in 1992 the Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Maori Development) was created. This is the Government’s principal source of advice on key Government policies as they affect Maori and the Ministry is responsible for achieving equitable outcomes for Maori in health, education, training and economic development.

In contrast Australia has a poor history of indigenous representation in Federal Parliament and the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people have lower life expectancy than any other first world country indigenous population.

White settlers of New Zealand had conceded a degree of autonomy and recognition of ownership of their land to the indigenous people. This was further achieved through the influence of the Maori MPs. For example Maui Pomare, a Maori MP and Minister for Health and Internal Affairs used his influence and determination to set up commissions to compensate several Maori tribes for their confiscated land. Additionally, various land Acts in the early 20th century assisted Maori farmers and established loans to encourage Maori land ownership. This contributed to introducing economic independence for the Maori farmers as they could continue to successfully sell their produce.

In Australia, the Federal Government only started to address the issue of land and resource rights in the 1970s.

The impacts of political representation, autonomy and economic independence have inevitably contributed to more equitable and positive relationship in New Zealand. However this still doesn’t really answer why New Zealand introduced these policies and not Australia.

  1. Reasons for settlement:

Australia was founded as a penal colony while New Zealand was founded to be a religious colony. In the simplest terms, Australia’s urban history is based on 80 years of criminality, most Australians didn’t want to think about it, let alone learn about it and subsequently conservation and discovery of their heritage has only just begun to become important in Australia. On the other hand, because New Zealand’s urban history is based on ‘good’ Christians, it is celebrated.

As well as effecting the subsequent interest in heritage, the difference between the reasons for settlement will also have had an impact on the indigenous affairs. For example, the prisoners and soldiers in charge of them will have had very little interest in the Aborignal people, particularly as they were fully preoccupied by trying to survive in the difficult new land. In contrast, the missionaries which arrived in New Zealand arrived with the specific intention of making contact with the Maori people and winning them over to their ways of life and religion. For example, Samuel Marsden is famous in New Zealand for leading a religious mission in 1814 which set out to convert the Maori to Christianity and so protect them from the corruptive influence of whalers and sealers (the original small group of white settlers). As reward for accepting the gospel, the Maori were often given guns, which worked extremely well.

The different histories may also be reflected in the identities of the respective indigenous populations.  In general, the Maori have a warrior-style identity but feel that their treaty with the British was never honoured. In contrast, in general, the Aborigines have more of a victim identity: they may feel that they were wronged by Christian missionaries and that their peaceful life was shattered by English soldiers.

  1. Environmental differences:

New Zealand is a land of lakes, glaciers and fertile soil. The original settlers were the whalers and sealers, small groups of people who were happily occupied by their sea-based resources. The later experienced missionaries were able to set up settlements with relative ease and speed compared to those is Australia.

In contrast, Australia is a harsh land of droughts, snakes and desert. The prisoners and soldiers who arrived on the first few boats had been woefully under prepared for how to survive in such a country, and few had the skills needed to set up a settlement, such as building or farm skills. Subsequently, despite the much larger land mass, the competition for resources between the indigenous population and the new settlers will have been much stronger than in the land of plenty in New Zealand. This inevitably led to a more aggressive relationship.

  1. Cultural differences:

The level of integration between the indigenous populations and the white settlers would depend on the cooperation of both sides. It would seem that the Maori people had more to gain from integration: they were known as war faring people and the whalers, and then the missionaries, gifted weapons in return for trade or religious conversion. Being war faring people might also have increased their confidence and curiosity in integrating with the white settlers. Additionally, it is believed that the Maori concept of union or ‘marriage’ was not as intent on faithfulness as the Christian concept. For example, we were told in Kaikoura that the Maori men would let their wives work for the whalers and go back to the UK with them in exchange for weapons when they returned. This would in turn contribute to integration.

In contrast, what little that is known about the Aboriginal people suggests that they were less war faring. This is perhaps due to the greater size of Australia and therefore fewer instances of territorial clashes with other tribes. Subsequently, not being war faring, the white settlers had less to offer the Aboriginal people, and perhaps they would have been less confident and curious to integrate. Additionally, while there are examples of a handful of male Aborigines integrating with the white settlers, it is known that the famous Woollarawarre Bennelong’s wife was hugely disapproving and refused to integrate as her husband did. This lack of desire to integrate would therefore inhibit integration.

All in all, it is clearly thoroughly complex and these questions raise issues which are still highly controversial. However I believe that when you visit new countries and are introduced to new cultures, it is important to remain curious. A lack of cultural curiosity could easily lead to cultural stagnation and developments such as Australia’s gradual acceptance of their history and Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Aborigines and the Stolen Generation, might never have occurred if it wasn’t for comparison with other indigenous affairs. New Zealand’s affairs are perhaps the most obvious contrast; however there are a few other first world indigenous affairs which it would be interesting to consider such as in North America, Canada and Sweden. As for now I will have to limit myself, as I remind myself that this is supposed to be a blog and not part of a History degree!

Sources Used:



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