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Fran O'Sullivan: Foreshore debate all about big bucks

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Labour had an eye to the dollar when it legislated to assert Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed. Photo / Martin Sykes
Labour had an eye to the dollar when it legislated to assert Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed. Photo / Martin Sykes

It's Waitangi Day and time for the usual suspects to upset New Zealand's race-relations apple cart.

So, let's get straight into the joust by focusing on the shabby masquerade being orchestrated by the influential Iwi Leadership Group to try to obtain full Maori "ownership" of the foreshore and seabed through stealth.

Park the charming stories about the customary connections that Maori enjoy with the foreshore and seabed. What's really at stake are the big bucks that can be earned from commercial activities such as marine farming, mining iron sands or even clipping the ticket on revenues from offshore gas and petroleum deposits.

That has always been the bottom line.

It's the real reason why Labour legislated to assert Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the first place. Not to preserve the rights of all Kiwis to access the beaches to fry sausages at their summer barbies.

If that was the only matter at stake, Maori would be content with the existing legislation, which enshrines their ability to apply for customary rights orders so they can undertake their traditional activities.

But neither Labour nor now National is prepared to debate the real issues behind this lengthy controversy.

It was not until a leaked document from an adviser to the Iwi Leadership forum was made public this week that the real agenda behind the secret dealings the group and its Maori Party proxies are having with the Government was exposed.

The document shows clearly that the Iwi Leadership Group would rather put up its own alternative policies than critique new proposals devised by government officials. It suggests a model by which the foreshore and seabed be treated as a "shared" space - which it says is a mechanism to "get away from the polarising 'ownership' issue".

Iwi and hapu would also have the right to assert title in the courts according to a new test based on Maori custom and tradition ("tikanga") and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which would include the power to review and injunct decisions over the foreshore and seabed, and impose an access ban (rahui).

This document, written by Maori strategist and Ngai Tahu staff member Sacha McMeeking, was quickly played down once the Government started asking questions.

But McMeeking is no "low-level operative", as the Government has suggested. Her suggestion that the new act should be silent on the issue of ownership and that decision-making and autonomy of iwi and hapu be increased has not been disavowed by the leadership group. Neither has her suggestion that the concept of mana is enduring and inalienable, that coastal iwi/hapu have the right to continue to express that mana and that may encompass development and other rights.

She also suggests iwi/hapu should have veto rights over economic development including coastal occupation and resource extraction - "the Crown will panic at the thought of a nationwide veto but if it was applied to identifiable sites they might cope".

Whoever leaked the document has done all Kiwis a favour by bringing these shadowy dealings into the open.

We don't even know if this group speaks for all Maori. Nga Tahu is a major player. But not all tribes are within this cabal.

Instead of dealing with one set of interests the Government should clear the way so all Maori tribes have to assert their claims to customary title in the New Zealand courts.

This controversy began because the Labour Government took fright at a Court of Appeal decision on the Ngati Apa case.

Ngati Apa had decided to take court action over the administration of marine farming permits in the Marlborough Sounds because it believed the local council had cut it out of the action.

So it asserted customary title rights in front of the Maori Land Court - a position the Crown contested. Ultimately the Court of Appeal found the Crown had never extinguished customary title to the foreshore and seabed in the first place.

But instead of allowing Maori to test the legal process, the Labour Government panicked.

Last year, Environment Minister Nick Smith refused to disclose to Parliament the detail of his talks with the leadership group and the Maori Party leaders, saying it was "confidential" in the same way its discussions were with the Act Party and other parties in Parliament.

The upshot of Smith's secret dealings was a sweetheart deal for Maori forest interests in the emissions trading scheme as an obvious quid pro quo for Maori Party support on National Party policies.

The group didn't get all it wanted but it got a lot more than other forest owners who were disadvantaged by the Government's new scheme.

Not surprisingly, the Iwi Leadership Group wants to repeat its earlier success.

New Zealanders should say a clear No to this political version of insider dealing.

- NZ Herald

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