John Armstrong: Cure close for vexed foreshore headache

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The Maori Party - to quote Pita Sharples - is very, very happy. Attorney-General Chris Finlayson is staying mum for the moment.

But he and his National Party colleagues must be quietly pleased, too.

It is still early days and things could yet unravel over the detail.

But if politics is the art of the possible, then Finlayson's and Sharples' independent panel's revisiting of the vexed question of ownership of the foreshore and seabed lays the foundations for achieving the seemingly impossible - an enduring cure for a longstanding political headache.

The panel's review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act - required under National's confidence and supply agreement with the Maori Party - has set solid benchmarks within which the two parties can negotiate the provisions of legislation to replace the law.

The Maori Party's bottom-line has been satisfied by the panel's insistence the act be repealed. More crucially, the panel's report recognises Maori rights to hold customary title to parts of the foreshore and seabed. That is blocked by the act passed by Labour in 2004 which vests ownership solely in the Crown.

The Maori Party yesterday quickly grasped those benchmarks as a given in the writing of the new legislation, thereby making it extremely difficult for National to stick to the status quo.

But that was probably what National wanted all along. For the Prime Minister, preservation of healthy relations between National and the Maori Party is paramount.

That meant giving ground to the Maori Party. But John Key needed a rationale with substance to be able to do so. By getting Eddie Durie, a former chief judge of the Maori Land Court and former chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal, to chair the review, National knew it would be provided with such a rationale.

But it is not solely one-way traffic. National is not the only party that has had to swallow a dose of realism. The Maori Party will have to live with the panel's upholding of the principle of "reasonable" public access to areas under customary title and restrictions stopping the sale of areas under such title.

Also of considerable help to Key, Tariana Turia, Sharples and Finlayson is the new stance adopted by Labour. That party's submission to the panel acknowledged failings in the act which, back in 2004, sought a middle road between Maori claims of ownership rights to the foreshore and seabed and appeasing Pakeha fears that Maori would block access to the country's beaches.

Labour now thinks iwi and hapu should be able to claim customary title, but with the proviso that such title cannot be converted to freehold title and therefore cannot be sold.

Labour's softening echoes the panel's report and opens the door to National building a cross-party consensus without fear that the current major Opposition party will exploit angst among Pakeha in the way National did back in 2004.

Establishing a consensus will still require some delicate manoeuvring by National, not least in convincing its own membership that the Cabinet has not sold out to the Maori Party. However, the membership will have to like it or lump it. Preserving National's grip on power is the priority here.

Even so, the Government is wise to allow itself the best part of two months to gauge public reaction before it formally responds to the panel's report.

National will be wary of the truly staggering assumption of the panel that the law is unpopular with "most" New Zealanders. That assumption ignores the silent majority of Pakeha who National's former leader Don Brash tapped so successfully in his Orewa speech on race relations.

With NZ First out of the picture, there is no conduit for such feeling to find expression in Parliament. National can breathe more easily. But it cannot ignore the potential for a public backlash in accepting yesterday's report.

- NZ Herald

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