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Australians Could Learn From Kiwi Treaty

AUSTRALIA is embroiled in a national dispute over Aboriginal land rights, but one New Zealander says his country's experience with the same issue might prove instructive.

Australia is addressing land-rights questions through a High Court ruling and federal legislation, but the process here has turned increasingly acrimonious.

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Buddy Mikaere, director of New Zealand's Waitangi Tribunal, which keeps the peace on land issues, said in Sydney yesterday that what has shaped the more peaceful New Zealand situation has been a treaty, a tribunal, and dialogue.

In 1840, colonizers and Maori leaders signed the Waitangi Treaty, which promised to protect Maori interests and allowed European settlement. Mr. Mikaere, a Maori, said that while not always honored, the Treaty has provided a ``moral force'' that has resulted in Maoris ending up with land, power, and influence.

``If you can get acceptance on the moral authority of an agreement, you avoid long drawn-out legal battles,'' he said.

The Waitangi Tribunal was formed in 1975 to help settle land-title issues and to give teeth to the Treaty. But at the same time, it has also helped keep the peace.

``The Waitangi Tribunal was set up as a pressure gauge to address wider race issues,'' said Mikaere. ``In the 1970s, it was predicted that New Zealand would have race riots in the '90s. That never happened, and the Tribunal is credited for that.''

He says New Zealand's situation has worked out well merely because all sides have been willing to talk.

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