Deborah Coddington: Act's eel slip-up throws ideals overboard

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Of all the wicked things done by the Labour Government, passing the Foreshore and Seabed Act ranks among the worst. It embodied nearly every transgression loathed by fair-minded people. It was populist, racist, unjust, and breached the Treaty of Waitangi.

All Ngati Apa did was win permission from the Court of Appeal to go to the Maori Land Court and argue its case for customary ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

Labour panicked, fearing the wrath of ignorant New Zealanders who, erroneously, thought they'd never have access to a beach again, and changed the law, vesting ownership in the Crown.

If a Lions Club wanted customary ownership of a church building it had used for more than 100 years and won the right to argue its case before the Supreme Court, no government would arbitrarily change the law to head off mass hysteria about Christians being barred from churches.

No government should ever change laws because a court decision might damage its popularity.

Imagine if a man were acquitted on rape charges, but the victim decided to appeal - and the government wanted fewer rape convictions to honour an election promise of reducing crime so introduced legislation barring appeals against sexual assault.

The Treaty of Waitangi, so beloved of the left when it suits, is supposed to guarantee all New Zealanders equality before the law.

But because many beaches were still in private Maori ownership, the Foreshore and Seabed Act was a blatant breach of property rights, and that is why the Act Party proudly opposed it.

What price the baubles of office, eh? Last week, responding to news that Ngai Tahu, which owns Lake Ellesmere, is negotiating a fee with eel fishers, Act leader and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide called the "iwi tax" an "appalling decision".

It seems property rights don't matter anymore, particularly for iwi. Lake Ellesmere was handed back to its rightful owner, Ngai Tahu, in 1998. Now, commercial eel fishers, some of whom have fished here for three decades, may be charged a percentage of their gross fish sales. Understandably, they're upset because they're the meat in the sandwich. But they don't have a right to free access, any more than Joe Public can wander over Hide's front lawn.

There are precedents here. The Department of Conservation charges commercial operators a fee, be they farmers or filmmakers. Sharemilkers pay landowners a percentage of their earnings. At present, I graze my horses free on Farmer John's land, but he'd be perfectly within his rights to charge, especially if I earned money taking horse treks. One horse eats the equivalent of five cows.

Hide called the Ngai Tahu levy on eel fishers insidious, bullying and intimidatory, and said: "I don't like fishermen being pushed around."

Leaving aside the adage of pots calling kettles Afro-American, what has happened to the political party that once championed the rights of property owners no matter their ethnicity, gender, or social standing?

What's happened to the political party which, better than any other, understood the market?

Are Maori not supposed to be commercially savvy? Should they remain downtrodden and surviving on handouts so Act can beat them up for welfare bludging?

What's happened to the political party which always stated that politicians should keep their noses out of private business?

And why is Sir Roger Douglas, the man who helped introduce user pays, so silent on his leader's outburst against this perfect example of user pays?

Ironically, it was Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon who spoke classical liberalism language when saying: "We would be most disappointed if politicians were to encroach upon private property rights."

I received many emails and calls this week, in the lead-up to Act's annual conference, from past and present Act supporters dismayed at their party's increasing tendency to jettison principles, not only over the so-called "iwi tax" but also the U-turn to support the ban on wearing gang patches.

But why are they surprised? Gradually, Act has morphed from a political party which stood for issues - small government, property rights, choice in education - to a negative and angry party, opposing anything to get a headline. Oh, and posing on the D-list celebrity pages.

There are many good people in Act with enough clout to halt the party's slide into a replacement for NZ First.

Hopefully this weekend their MPs were reminded of what they represent.

Sticking up for fishermen is fine, but not if that involves trashing the property rights and interfering in the commercial transactions of the private sector.

- Herald on Sunday

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