By Royal Decree: The physical and financial oppression of the Maori people

Written by Richard Jones

Māori are expected to live shorter lives than non-Māori New Zealanders. For women, this difference is five years, but for men the average difference is seven years [1]. The average quality of health of Māori is also less than that of non-Māori, with far higher incidence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease [2]. But how did these stark health inequalities come to be? An insight lies in New Zealand’s history and the economic mechanisms underlying its colonisation.

The Treaty of Waitangi, widely held to be New Zealand’s founding document, was signed between prominent Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in 1840. The intention of the document was to establish New Zealand as an official colony, recognise the indigenous Māori as British citizens and protect their rights accordingly. With the signing of the treaty, the colonial government was given pre-emptive right over all Māori land: only the Crown could buy land from Māori tribes, a right that it was all too happy to exercise.

The arms trade introduced by early colonisers escalated intertribal warfare, putting tribes under significant pressure to purchase muskets for the protection of their people, leading to the sale of their only valuable capital asset [3]. This land was purchased by unscrupulous government officials at unfair prices and then resold to European settlers with a substantial mark up of as much as seventeen times what it was bought for [3]. Civilisation under British rule was used as the justification for the low prices paid [4, p.58]. This process, in effect, acted as a capital gains tax which redistributed vast amounts of wealth from the Māori to the Crown [3]. The funds generated were reinvested in colonisation efforts, with the influx of Europeans further increasing demand for land, which could only be wrested from Māori hands [4, p.59]. Soaring tensions between indigenous and settler populations reached boiling point with the outbreak of conflict. This exacerbated the situation by fostering a political climate in which it was acceptable for the government to requisition land, offering compensation at only a fraction of its true value [5].

This land-grabbing reduced Māori landownership to just 17% of pre-colonial times [6, p.258]. Colonisation also saw a significant reduction in the Māori population, falling to its lowest point at the turn of the Century, when settlers outnumbered Māori 17:1 [7]. This decrease is in part due to the introduction of new infectious diseases and firearms, but the selling of land and the subsequent social disorganisation were also large contributors [6, 8, p. 184].

The unfair ‘taxation’ of Māori wealth and the redistribution of their lands has had repercussions still felt by current generations. Stripped of their wealth, the displaced and landless Māori increasingly relocated to towns in search of work, where they were to be embedded in a lower socio-economic standing [3]. Today, Māori are more likely to have a lower income, be unemployed, not own their own home, and live in a socially deprived neighbourhood when compared to non-Māori [2].

Through this disadvantage, Māori health continues to be seriously affected. Māori are twice as likely as non-Māori go without healthcare due to the cost of treatment [9]. Further, their lower socioeconomic standing is reflected in their diet, which on average is higher in the saturated fats, salts and sugars found in cheap processed foods [10]. Such a diet is linked to obesity, a known risk factor for conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The distinction in health outcomes seen in New Zealand is shocking but perhaps unsurprising to those aware of the close relationship shared by health and income inequality. Health exists along a social gradient, with lower socioeconomic status relating to poorer health. However, a body of evidence suggests that high levels of income inequality within a population in itself can detrimental to its health [11].

The health inequalities present in New Zealand are a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi due to the clear distinction between Māori and non-Māori [12]. Historically, the Waitangi Tribunal represented the Māori’s best chance of reparation for the unjust outcomes of colonisation. Established in 1975, the Tribunal investigates Māori claims concerning breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Since its inception, the tribunal has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of settlement. Unfortunately, the Tribunal’s power is waning as it is no longer able to register historical claims. An alternative mechanism for social justice could be redistributive taxation that narrows the income gap between Māori and non-Māori. Revenue could be used to further the engagement of Māori in the design and implementation of health care services, which has shown to yield positive impacts on health [2, 13]. Such a policy could benefit all New Zealand as, although it would advantage the least well off the most, a large majority of the population across society are likely to experience an improvement in their health [11].



  1. Ministry of Health, 2013. New Zealand Health Survey: Annual Update of Key Findings 2012/13. Ministry of Health Wellington.
  2. Theodore, R., McLean, R. and Temorenga, L. 2015. Challenges to addressing obesity for Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Australian and New Zealand journal of public health, 39, 509-512.
  3. Hooper and Kearins, 2003.  Substance but not form: Capital taxation and public finance in New Zealand, 1840-1859. Accounting History, 8, 101-119.
  4. Gardner, W. 1981. A colonial economy. Auckland: WH Oliver and BR Williams.
  5. Hooper and Kearins, 2004. Financing New Zealand 1860-1880: Maori land and the wealth tax effect. Accounting History, 9, 87-105.
  6. Ellison-Loschmann, L. and Pearce, N. 2006. Improving access to health care among New Zealand’s Maori population. American journal of public health, 96, 612-617.
  7. King, M. 1981. Between two worlds. The Oxford history of New Zealand, 279-301.
  8. Pool, I. 1991. Te Iwi Maori: A New Zealand Population Past, Present and Future. Auckland: Auckland University Press.
  9. Sorrenson, M. P. K. 1956. Land purchase methods and their effect on Maori population, 1865-1901. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 65, 183-199.
  10. Schoen, C. and Doty, M. M. 2004.  Inequities in access to medical care in five countries: findings from the 2001 Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey. Health Policy, 67, 309-322.
  11. Wilkinson, R.G. and Pickett, K.E., 2009. Income inequality and social dysfunction. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, pp.493-511.
  12. Kingi, T.K., 2007. The Treaty of Waitangi: A framework for Maori health development. New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, 54(1).
  13. Boulton, A., Tamehana, J. and Brannelly, T., 2013. Whanau-centred health and social service delivery in New Zealand. Mai Journal, 2(1), pp.18-32.