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Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Ureweras affair shows us the two New Zealands

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Academic Rawiri Taonui says 'Tame Iti is a master of theatre, not a terrorist.' Photo / Greg Bowker
Academic Rawiri Taonui says 'Tame Iti is a master of theatre, not a terrorist.' Photo / Greg Bowker

Many New Zealanders would have been surprised to hear Tame Iti eulogised by his defence lawyer as a modern-day prophet and compared to no less an international icon than the saintly Nelson Mandela.

As the Bible says, prophets are seldom given the respect they deserve in their own backyards.

Still, if police investigating the "very disturbing activities" in the Urewera bush some five or so years ago had bothered to ask Ruatoki folk about their kinsman, they might have been a little less ready to pigeonhole him as the leader of a terrorist cell (or at the very least an "organised criminal group") intent on violence, murder and mayhem.

Anyone who knows Iti would have told them that terrorism isn't his style.

"Tame Iti is a master of theatre, not a terrorist," wrote the academic Rawiri Taonui in October 2007, after Iti and 16 others were rounded up on terrorism charges.

"He showed his bum to the Waitangi Tribunal, and has spat with great aplomb and even greater accuracy in the direction of a Governor-General, a Prime Minister and the assembled Labour Maori MPs. He shotgunned a flag because he is a freedom fighter for rights, not a killer. He may have some Molotov cocktails but who would he throw them at? No Pakeha train passes by, and 737s fly too high ..."

Taonui argued that all hunting fraternities have a "few hare-brained but harmless military fantasists ... Machismo rhetoric and commando games have always fringed protest circles. During the '81 Springbok tour, there was talk of tunnelling across Auckland to blow up Eden Park although the digging would take four years and the baking soda-vinegar potpourri was somehow lightweight."

But, he quipped, "Ruatoki will not invade Auckland. Who will pay for the gas?"

Which is not to say that there weren't a few loose cannons running around the Urewera Ranges, or that some of them might not have got carried away.

But even if the "concerning and disturbing" activities had amounted to the beginnings of something more sinister - rather than wananga in bushcraft and firearms, or training for security work, or just big boys playing silly games - it seems unlikely it would have travelled far down the road from "silly" to "dangerously deranged".

As Tuhoe historian Tamati Kruger has made clear, the Tuhoe community wouldn't have tolerated the kind of violent activism that the Crown alleged was in the minds of Iti and his three co-defendants.

Was something lost in translation? Some of the intercepted exchanges sounded like they wouldn't have been out of place in Dumb and Dumber. Recruits shouldn't be too bright, said one text: "Da dumber da better."

Could they have "organised" anything, much less posed a threat to New Zealand society?

An ex-Navy drill instructor who put some of the participants through their paces told the court the skill level was so abysmal that their chances of landing security work "was a dream rather than reality".

There's no doubt the police had grounds to investigate the goings-on in Te Urewera. But the fact that we're no wiser about what really was going on after a protracted investigation, four and a half years of legal wrangling, and millions of dollars in legal costs raises serious questions about how the investigation was conducted.

Instead of engagement, police opted for electronic (and, as the Supreme Court later ruled, illegal) surveillance.

As Iti's defence argued, police looked through a keyhole and got only a small part of the puzzle.

Then, to add insult to injury, they rounded their investigation off with an extraordinarily heavy-handed and culturally ignorant early-morning assault on the Ruatoki community.

Can any good be salvaged from this?

It might be argued that many of us have gained a (very expensive) understanding of Tuhoe and its claim against the Crown.

As well, there seems to be a newfound awareness of the gulf between Maori and Pakeha world views; the "two worlds" that defence lawyers alluded to during the trial. (Among Pakeha, anyway; Maori have always known it.)

Back in 2007, Paul Moon, professor of history at AUT, wrote that the Urewera events exposed the deep fissure between two New Zealands.

The first being "predominantly urban, materialistic, outwardly secular, increasingly culturally diverse".

The second, "indigenous, often tucked away in remote recesses like the Ureweras ... impoverished and nursed on a diet of injustices that their ancestors endured (some as recent as just a generation or two ago)".

Pita Sharples lamented that the "terror-raid" on Ruatoki set race relations back 100 years. Yet we can be grateful that goodwill survives among Tuhoe.

As Tamati Kruger told Morning Report, there isn't "hatred on the streets. I think everyone is civil to each other and kind and respectful, but behind that there's no trust and confidence [in the police]".

It's clear the police have some work to do to rebuild relationships. As do we all. The quality of our relationships remains our best anti-terrorist measure.

- NZ Herald

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