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A preliminary geneaology of research ethics review and Māori


Lindsey Te Ata o Tu MacDonald
AHRECS, Consultant

In New Zealand, we have two separate drivers for change in research ethics for working with Māori.  The first are the institutional responses to the legal requirements of government institutions to accord justice to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi (see Te Puni Kokiri, 2001). The second arise where Māori scholars have pulled on practices and ideas within their iwi and hapū to develop a Māori centred research philosophy, that in turn has created a distinctively Māori research ethics.

I made this argument at a recent conference, in a paper to honour the late Barry Smith. Barry, in reviewing ethics applications and creating ethics policy could articulate how to negotiate both with his usual insight, grace and wit and aloha. Without him to drive developments we must think carefully about how to follow his example of synthesising the best of ethical approaches to advance Māori wellbeing and rangatiratanga (roughly translated as indigenous self-determination, see Durie, 1988).

So what is the history of research ethics approaches to research with Māori? First, the radical 1984 Labour government’s privatisation agenda enshrined ‘the principles of the Treaty of Wāitangi’ that put in critical pieces of legislation to ensure continued Māori support. The first, and most important of these Treaty clauses was in section 9 of the 1986 State-Owned Enterprise Act.

s9 nothing in the Act permitted the Crown to act in a manner that was inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty of Wāitangi.

When the government inevitably breached this section, a judicial review case allowed the Court of Appeal (at the time New Zealand’s highest court) to set out its view of the relationship between the Crown and Māori. (New Zealand Māori Council v Attorney-General 1 NZLR 641, (1987) 6 NZAR 353). Later cases set out that consultation had to be conducted with an open mind, and Māori were to be given complete information about the subject. Wellington International Airport Ltd v Air NZ [1991] 1 NZLR 671 (Court of Appeal)

The case indicated that the courts expected any government institution (with a Treaty clause in its enabling legislation) to ‘consult’ – to the satisfaction of a court – with Māori individuals and groups who may be affected by its policies or practices. So all government agencies have since been on notice that they must consult with Māori fully on decisions that might affect Māori, and not to do so could lead to a judicial review of their decision-making by a court. Moreover, any Māori individual could also ask the Wāitangi Tribunal (an ongoing political commission of inquiry into Treaty breaches) to review a government action or inaction which breached the principles of the Treaty of Wāitangi.

Due to these incentives, government agencies got into the practice of consulting with Māori organisations on anything that might be of interest or affect Māori. So both the health sector ethics committees and the University ethics committees developed policies that asked applicants to demonstrate they had ‘consulted’ with Māori.

At the same time, a more humane approach to Māori research ethics was also being developed – it arose from Māori scholars grappling with how to inject Te Ao Māori (literally, the Māori world) into the systems around them. Models included, Te Whare Tapa Whā (Durie, 1984), The Meihana model (Pitama, 2007) and the Hui model (Lacey, 2011), to name but a few. In all of these models, there is a wealth of indigenous knowledge that is also discussed beautifully in Te Ara Tika (Smith, 2010), a guide to reviewing research involving Māori, that arose from Barry’s concerns around gaps in knowledge about Māori and research ethics.

So there is an objective legal risk driving consultation with Māori over research on the one hand, and on the other, a philosophically normative Māori centred ethics, drawn from a Māori-centric approach. They can sit awkwardly together for researchers and reviewers. For instance, the two approaches are often combined as though they are one – so that researchers are left thinking they are legally required to adopt Māori normative ethics prescribed in the scholarly models of Māori research, and so do not listen to the tikanga (protocols) of the local community with whom they are researching. Alternatively, researchers may comply with the spirit of the law and do consultation – but as the government has proved time and time again; meeting the judicial test for consultation can still leave many feeling deeply unheard.

This leaves non-Māori, and I have seen this as a Māori research consultant for my University, in what Tolich called, ‘Pakeha [non-Māori] Paralysis’ – that is, paralysed by Māori concerns and thus avoiding doing research with Māori. Indeed I have counselled academics to avoid Māori centred research because they do not have skills to do it.

The deeper problem is that non-Māori researchers don’t have the resources to research appropriately with Māori. And Māori don’t, and should not have to have the capacity to serve the needs of non-Māori researchers.

I have pointed out the incentives for ethics review for Māori because I believe they can show us how to solve the problem. The law states that ethics reviewers must take seriously the voices of Māori in the research, but taking that seriously is not to follow the dictates of legal cases about consultation – those cases were decided about events unrelated to research or ethics. Nor must ethics committees think particular Māori philosophies of research must apply, since there are many more communities that have their own philosophies, and it is those local philosophies that should be privileged.

If we look to the underlying principles of both Māori research principles and legal cases, they combine to suggest we must take seriously the idea that research engages with Māori when it takes seriously the voices of the communities and participants involved in, or around the research. That is, the researchers should be seeking and assisting Māori voices to be heard in the research, if those Māori communities and individuals wish to be heard. To meet the legal needs, and to ensure Māori are given rangatiratanga, I suggest the appropriate question for a researcher to ask themselves (or be asked by the review committee) is ‘how are you making it possible for the Māori individuals and communities to communicate and participate with you in the project should they wish?


Durie, M. (1998). Te Mana Te Kawanatanga: The politics of Maori self-determination. Auckland; New York: Oxford University Press.

Durie, M. (2001). Mauri Ora: The Dynamics of Māori Health.

Pitama, S., Robertson, P., Cram, F., Gillies, M., Huria, T., & dallas-katoa, W. (2007). Meihana Model: A Clinical Assessment Framework. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 36.

Lacey, C., Huria, T. B.,Lutz, & Gilles, M. P., Suzanne. (2011). The Hui Process: a framework to enhance the doctor–patient relationship with Māori. New Zealand Medical Journal, 124(1347).

Smith, B., Reynolds, P., Russell, K.,& (2010). TE ARA TIKA Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics : A framework for researchers and ethics committee members. Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Te Puni KokirI (Ministry or Māori Development) (2001) He tirohanga o kawa ki te Tiriti o Waitangi: A guide to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi as expressed by the Courts and the Waitangi Tribunal. Wellington, N.Z.:

Tolich, M. (2002). Pakeha” paralysis”: Cultural safety for those researching the general population of Aotearoa. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 164-178.

For a good guide to the history and impact of Treaty clauses in legislation see
Palmer, M. (2008). The Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand’s law and constitution. Wellington [N.Z.]: Victoria University Press.

This post may be cited as:

Te Ata o Tu MacDonald, L. (4 December 2019) A preliminary geneaology of research ethics review and Māori. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

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