The $500 million Treelords settlement is a watershed in negotiation that raises more questions and claims than it settles.
Treaty settlements have always struggled to be fair. The 80s Waiheke and Orakei settlements set a precedent that compensation would be a fraction of losses.
The infamous 1994 Fiscal Envelope reaffirmed that by capping all settlements at $1 billion. Officially abandoned in 1996, the envelope remained in practice as new settlements were indexed against earlier ones.
Compensation is 1 to 2 per cent of losses and returned lands minuscule, despite the several trillion dollars that have benefited generations of Pakeha from original theft.
Maori are denied the same rights to natural resources such as coal, oil, natural gas and gold that are available in Australian and Canadian agreements.
Successive governments strangled Waitangi Tribunal funding to smother a flood of findings against the Crown. Investigative processes are accordingly limited - the Muriwhenua report halted at 1865, the Taranaki report cut off at 1900.
The Crown bullied the tribunal, threatening it with restructuring if it used resumption clauses to return forests and State Owned Enterprise assets.
The late 80s surplus education and railway land settlement process negotiated amicably between the Maori Congress and Crown was set aside in favour of controlled negotiation through the Office of Treaty Settlements (OTS).
But negotiation processes have been manipulative, funds distributed to facilitate iwi consultation sometimes sent to those favouring the Crown.
Matters came to a head last year following the Waitangi Tribunal Te Arawa forestry and Ngati Whatua Auckland city reports indicting OTS on a litany of manipulative practice. Maori had begun deserting Labour in droves - the last Marae-DigiPoll suggests a Maori Party clean sweep of the Maori seats this election.
Michael Cullen stepped into the portfolio and things changed. Operating rangatira-to-rangatira, as Doug Graham did in the 90s, Cullen opened doors, cut through red tape, removed obstacles and moved business forward. Treelords is the outcome. More than twice the value of any previous settlement Treelords sets multiple precedents.
The average $70 million for each tribe, far exceeding that in regions such as Taranaki, will raise expectations in areas such as Northland where the five Muriwhenua tribes and Ngapuhi are yet to reach agreements.
The return of 176,000ha makes Maori the largest forestry operators in the country, increases overall Maori ownership of land by nearly 8 per cent and is the first major return of contiguous land in accordance with UN standards.
Maori forestry interests are set to grow as they have in fishing under Sealords. Economics aside, vested ownership of sea and land is integral to Maori identity.
Maori will ask questions about returning the Department of Conservation estate. If we can return fisheries, lake beds and business forest why not the conservation estate?
Agreements could be conditional; owned by Maori, co-managed with the Crown and National Parks in perpetuity.
With $223 million in cash and $15 million rentals per year, Tuwharetoa, Tuhoe and Te Arawa emerge as new economic powerhouses alongside Ngai Tahu and Tainui. Maoridom will be better able to realise a long held goal to acquire strategic infrastructure and energy assets. No tribe can afford that alone, many tribes can together.
Official settlement figures now top $1.41 billion thereby triggering the mid-90s Tainui and Ngai Tahu relativity clauses that promised an extra payment equal to 17 per cent of the total over $1 billion.
Unfortunately, there are no guidelines for activating relativity. Labour is already backtracking. Cullen argues that adjusted for inflation we haven't reached a billion in "1994 dollars" - a rather hypocritical statement given that no settlements had ever been upwardly adjusted for inflation. Furthermore, Landcorp was caught out last year selling off Treaty lands tagged for settlements because property values had risen and settlement values indexed at 1994 hadn't.
Cullen also stated that the $230 million Forest Rentals don't count as Treaty dollars, which is also odd given the 1989 Forestry Act explicitly sets aside rentals for Treaty settlements.
Labour is trying to have it both ways - big deals to secure Maori seats, obfuscation of figures to dispel innate Pakeha fears about Maori getting too much.
This is a further issue with uncounted dollars in agreements deliberately fudged for political purposes, and with 20 settlements to be finalised the end total will rise to around $2 billion. With a deadline on lodging claims in September this year, tribes without ratchet clauses will file claims. A founding principle of the Fiscal Envelope was that the level of one settlement should not be unfair to others; all tribes should receive equal relativity.
Will Treelords help Labour at this year's election? The new direction may not be too little, but it is probably too late. The door may open ever so slightly to save the seats of Parekura Horomia and Nanaia Mahuta. However, one senses that Maori will see Treelords and foreshore arrangements currently being negotiated as election bribes, and, the Maori Party has exposed too many Labour weaknesses.
Pakeha will appreciate the progress but are preoccupied with tax cuts and rising fuel and food costs to really bother. An admirable step forward toward better relationships between Treaty partners, Treelords won't change the outcome of the election.
Dr Rawiri Taonui is head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies and kaiarahi (joint Maori adviser) at the College of Arts, University of Canterbury.